The question, posed during a conference call with reporters earlier this week, was simple but interesting: Has Christian Hackenberg had fun this season?
It was a chance for Penn State’s junior quarterback to take it off the statesmanlike autopilot he employs on such occasions (as indeed everyone in his position must), and he obliged.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s been up and down at times, but nothing good comes easy, if that makes sense. You’ve got to work for everything you get. We’ve been able to go out, have a lot of fun this year, throw the ball around, do a lot of things, win some games. It’s been a good ride.”
Never mind that the Nittany Lions (7-4) carry a two-game losing streak into Saturday’s regular-season finale at No. 6 Michigan State (10-1). Never mind that Hackenberg has been sacked a Big Ten-worst 37 times this season, after being dropped a school-record 44 times in 2014, as well as 22 times his freshman year — a staggering 103 times in all.
His completion rate has sunk every year, from 58.9 percent in 2013 under Bill O’Brien to 55.8 percent last season and 52.9 percent his fall, under James Franklin. Yet there are signs of a rebound; while his touchdown/interception ratio was 20-10 in ’13 and an abysmal 12-15 last year, it is 14-3 this season, and over his last eight games he has thrown 13 TD passes with just a single pick.
Along the way, he has set school PSU records for passing yards (8,061), total offense (7,818), completions (663), attempts (1,182), 200-yard games (20) and 300-yard games (nine). He also shares the TD pass mark of 46 with Matt McGloin.
So yes, Hack’s happy, even if it has so often seemed that he has been a square peg in the round hole of the Franklin/John Donovan offense.
“I really enjoy this team,” he said. “I love how we work. I love how we approach practice. I love the locker room. I think it’s been an awesome year, but we obviously are very focused. We’ve got two more opportunities here, starting with Michigan State. It’s a big one. We’re really excited about the opportunity to make sure that we’re successful, and we’re doing what we need to do to put ourselves in a big spot in December and January.”
Still, all those sacks. He was dropped four times in last Saturday’s 28-16 loss to Michigan, and hit several more times, to the point that he had to leave the game for a play.
“He’s taken a pounding for the past year and a half,” Franklin said after the game. “No one really can question Christian Hackenberg’s mental or physical toughness.”
When asked Tuesday about the cumulative effect of all that punishment, Hackenberg said he has tried to hang in, tried to avoid developing any bad habits.
“I think individually you’re going to learn some toughness, some mental toughness,” he said, “but I think the bigger picture is, it’s just part of the deal.”
There are other concerns, certainly. As was the case last year, the Lions have one of the nation’s most anemic offenses. They are notably next-to-last among the country’s 127 FBS schools in third-down conversion rate (27.6 percent).
And while they are third in the conference in red-zone scoring, converting 34 of their 37 opportunities (91.9 percent), a closer look at the numbers tells a different tale. Just 20 of those 34 scores are touchdowns, meaning their TD rate is 54.1 percent. That is fifth-worst in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern (37.8), Illinois (50.0), Minnesota (50.0) and Maryland (51.5).
The red-zone issues were particularly acute against Michigan. Three times the Lions had first downs at the 9 or closer, and they came away with field goals every time. They snapped the ball nine times in those situations, and netted four yards.
“You don’t beat good teams kicking field goals,” Hackenberg said.
He was vague when discussing what the issues might be in such situations, however.
“I think we just need to be a little more consistent in terms of what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve had hats on hats in the run game, the pass game. We’ve had the matchups. We just need to make sure that we’re doing everything on time and how we’re being coached to do it.”
Asked about it again, he said, “We had some good plays called against the looks we knew we were going to get, and we just weren’t able to execute it at a high enough level on Saturday.”
And what of the running game? Saquon Barkley broke off a 56-yard run on PSU’s second offensive play against Michigan, but the Lions finished the day with just 70 yards on the ground.
“They have scholarship players too,” Hackenberg said, “and they make a lot of plays, so you need to be able to bounce back and take advantage of opportunities when you have them, and understand that they’re going to get theirs. … It’s the greatest team game in the world for a reason, and when you’re playing a good team like that, you’ve got to expect some back and forth there.”
It will be the same thing this Saturday, against a Spartans team bidding for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. But as has been the case with some of his teammates this week, Hackenberg was hesitant to attach any extra significance to the matchup.
“We’re really focused on Penn State and what we need to do to continue to have a great season and win another football game,” he said. “They obviously have their things that they have to do, but we have to approach it from a very selfish standpoint in terms of looking at what’s best for Penn State, and winning this game is what’s best for Penn State. … It’s going to be another great Big Ten game — smashmouth, hardnosed, tough teams, a lot of tradition for both programs. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Much like the season, in his eyes.