It was simple for Christian Hackenberg on Saturday against Illinois, a welcome change.
There were none of those thorny questions about where he fits in Penn State’s offense, or how it fits him. None of those pesky folks wondering about how he might have been unable to see Saquon Barkley in the flat or unable to connect with Chris Godwin on the post.
And really, not much of a pass rush to fret over. The Fighting Illini entered the game with a mere nine sacks, fewest in the Big Ten and ninth-fewest in college football’s big-boy division, then managed three more, the ultimate footnote as it turned out.
The toughest part of his day was his participation in a flea flicker, but that worked out, too.
Beyond that, he was just slingin’ it, as he usually does when he is at his best. Went 21-for-29 for 266 yards and two touchdowns in the 39-0 victory. Caught a TD pass as well.
Coach James Franklin pronounced his QB’s play “awesome,” as you knew he would, and Godwin, the gifted sophomore wide receiver, was loath to disagree.
“Christian,” he said, “is a great player. We go through adversity every week. This game was just a little less adversity.”
Franklin, ever positive he, noted afterward something his pals in the press box had realized earlier in the day — that Hackenberg has thrown 12 touchdown passes without an interception over his last six games.
And touchdown-interception ratio, the coach said, is “a very important stat for quarterbacks.” So too is red-zone efficiency, where the Lions have been good, and third-down conversion rate, where they have not.
The best measure of all, Franklin said, is win-loss record. And PSU is 7-2, with both losses to teams that began the weekend undefeated.
“We’re getting better,” he said. “Didn’t start out the season the way any of us would have liked (with a 27-10 loss to Temple). A lot of people wanted us to panic. We’re not going to.”
Hackenberg never had any reason to panic on this day. With the Illini’s pass rush a rumor he settled right in, hitting his first seven passes, two for touchdowns.
“We were rolling,” he said. “We were doing things.”
And it was everybody, too. Godwin caught seven balls, including a five-yard touchdown to open the scoring late in the first quarter. The oft-forgotten Geno Lewis made a leaping grab for a six-yard TD later in that period, a catch slightly reminiscent of the one he made to put the Lions ahead to stay a week earlier, at Maryland.
And Barkley, the dazzling freshman tailback, was up to his usual tricks, with 20 carries for 84 yards, and three catches for 58. His score came on a seven-yard run out of the Wildcat formation early in the fourth quarter, when he started right, levitated over some tacklers near the 4 and landed in the end zone.
“A kid who has that much talent, it’s fun to watch,” Hackenberg said. “At the end of the day, you’re happy he’s on your team and you’re able to turn around and hand the ball to him.”
Oh, and one other thing, the quarterback added: “He’s just going to continue to get better. … He has a ton more room for growth.”
As with many players who find themselves in the spotlight, Hackenberg is far more comfortable discussing those around him than himself. That being the case, he credited whatever improvement he has made of late to the line’s blocking, the receivers’ ability to get open, etc.
“I think it’s one of those things where it’s not so much pressure on one guy to make a play or play outside themselves,” he said.
He was, however, asked to do something out of the ordinary in the third quarter, when on first down from the Illinois 14 he pitched the ball to backup tailback Nick Scott, leaked out into the left flat, gathered in Scott’s option pass and took it in for the score.
Scott said it was “just another playcall,” but admitted there was a lot running through his mind as it was unfolding.
“Don’t blow it,” he said. “Don’t overthrow it, don’t underthrow it — just put it right on him, and I figured he could do the rest. People forget that Hack’s an athlete, but he made well with it.”
Added Hackenberg, “For (the coaches) to throw that in there, you kind of often overlook, I guess, the pressure of it. … I thought that was a testament to how focused each and every one of us are, and were, throughout the game.”
The defense did its part, limiting the Illini to 170 yards — fewest by a PSU opponent this season — and recording four sacks. One of those was by end Carl Nassib, the national leader in that category; he now has 14.5.
Afterward defensive tackle Anthony Zettel entered the interview room wearing a hockey goaltender’s mask worthy of Jason Voorhees, from the “Friday the 13th” movies. He left it on as he took questions, too.
But on this day his QB had been the one to strike the most telling blows. Did it repeatedly. And simply.