First play from scrimmage Saturday, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg fired deep in the direction of wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Incomplete, but no matter. The die had been cast, the Nittany Lions’ intentions made clear: They were gonna sling it around, attack Indiana with the pass.
It resulted in the fifth straight victory for PSU, this one by a 29-7 score, heading into next Saturday’s visit to Ohio State.
Hackenberg went 21-for-39 for 262 yards and two touchdowns, both 39-yarders in the first half to wide receivers Brandon Polk and DaeSean Hamilton. The QB also ran for two scores.
The breakout day by the clunky passing game was a product of opportunity and improved health. Also conditions.
“First and foremost, it just wasn’t raining,” tight end Kyle Carter said.
That was only the second time in the stretch of five straight home games that had been the case.
“The weather,” Carter said, “definitely dictates some of the play calls.”
As does the opponent.
“We knew with their defense there were some things we could attack,” Carter said. “This was the week.”
The box was crowded, the passing lanes inviting. So the Lions went up top. Again and again their receivers won one-on-one matchups, and Hackenberg found them. And whatever the quarterback did with his feet was just gravy.
“Now,” Franklin said pointedly, “we’ll have conversations about him being a dual-threat quarterback and installing the option this week.”
Because, see, there have been suggestions that that’s the type of QB Franklin really wants. And that he and offensive coordinator John Donovan have been trying to pound a square peg (Hackenberg) into a round hole (their offense) the last two years, with predictable inconsistency.
But all was sweetness and light on Saturday. The Lions started their fourth offensive line combination of the season — this one had Andrew Nelson back at right tackle, after he missed three and half games with a knee injury, and Wendy Laurent at center in place of an injured Angelo Mangiro — and while it surrendered four sacks, it held up well enough.
And when it didn’t, the QB went all Michael Vick on the Hoosiers.
“Whatever we’ve got to do to win the football game, I’m all in,” said Hackenberg, who scored on a one-yard run in the second quarter and a five-yard run in the fourth.
The Lions outgained the Hoosiers 420-234, and while they had their glitches were never threatened after building a 19-7 halftime lead. IU (4-2) was without quarterback Nate Sudfeld and leading rusher Jordan Howard because of ankle injuries, and then lost Sudfeld’s replacement, Zander Diamont, to a shoulder injury in the third quarter.
“I’m disappointed we did not play better,” Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson said. “I thought we were ready to go, but at the same time there was just a little bit more selfishness with our actions today. … Today Penn State was a much better football team across the board.”
Hackenberg actually misfired on five of his first six attempts, but he hit Polk — a freshman who is, according to Hamilton “probably the fastest guy on our team” — for a score late in the first quarter.
Indiana answered with its only sustained march of the day, an eight-play, 65-yarder culminating in Diamont’s 12-yard run. The PSU defense came up with stops on the Hoosiers’ next two possessions, after the visitors took over near midfield courtesy of an onside kick and a fumble, respectively, and late in the half the Lions scored twice, on the Hackenberg-Hamilton connection and Hackenberg’s first TD run.
On the latter score he rolled right and had Carter wide open in the end zone. Hackenberg nonetheless tucked the ball and ran it in, and as the QB celebrated with others Carter trudged back to the sideline, apparently upset.
When asked later what was going through his mind at that moment, Carter said, “We scored a touchdown.”
When it was noted that he didn’t look too happy, he said, “We scored a touchdown. We won the game. Seven points is seven points.”
When asked whether he and Hackenberg discussed the play, he said, “We scored a touchdown and won the game.”
“He was expecting me to throw it to him,” he said. “That’s what I usually do. Safer play — just get the ball in there.”
Hackenberg did hit Carter three times in a seven-play, 52-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, and after running it in from the 5 appeared to have a few choice words for safety Chase Dutra, who had attempted to stop him near the goal line.
Asked later about that display, Hackenberg said, “Obviously I think that’s one of the things we’ve done as a team. We’ve played with our emotions on our sleeves, for the most part, each week so far this year.”
It’s worth noting that at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in late July, IU defensive tackle Adarius Rayner told reporters that Sudfeld was better than Hackenberg, adding that the PSU QB “gets scared when the pocket collapses.”
“I feel like we just have to come with our heads up, rushing great, and get him shook up in the pocket,” Rayner said, “and he’ll kind of fold like he did two years ago.”
Hackenberg, who went 30-for-55 for 340 yards and three TDs in that 2013 game (an IU victory), was asked about Rayner’s comments in early August, at Penn State’s Media Day.
“I’m just worried about Penn State right now, and getting better,” he said.
“I didn’t find out about that until this week,” Hamilton said Saturday. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I don’t even know who the guy is, not to be rude. I don’t pay attention to the D-line or anything like that. I heard about it. Nobody even said anything about it. It’s not really a big deal to us. We worry about ourselves.”
Someone then wondered if it had any impact on Hackenberg, with whom Hamilton is close.
“Yeah, probably,” the wideout said. “He’s a competitor, like I say all the time. Week in and week out, he’s going out there, he’s trying to get the job done.”
He did so on Saturday. And it translated to a victory.