Hackenberg shines as Penn State tops Syracuse

Penn State's Geno Lewis celebrates with Allen Robinson after catching a 54-yard touchdown pass from Christian Hackenberg in the fourth quarter at the Meadowlands.
Penn State's Geno Lewis celebrates with Allen Robinson after catching a 54-yard touchdown pass from Christian Hackenberg in the fourth quarter at the Meadowlands. (BILL KOSTROUN / Associated Press)
Posted: September 02, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Hours before his first start in his first game as a college football player, Christian Hackenberg walked nervously around the Penn State locker room picking up encouragement from teammates as much as four years older.

"Before the game, he told me, 'If I get kind of spaced out, give me like a smack and keep me focused,' " offensive tackle Garry Gilliam recalled.

Hackenberg shook off the nerves once he took a few snaps and impressed in his debut, throwing for 278 yards and two long touchdowns to get the Nittany Lions' season off to an acceptable if somewhat shaky start, a 23-17 victory over Syracuse at steamy MetLife Stadium on Saturday.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound true freshman, who beat out sophomore Tyler Ferguson for the starting job, seldom was rattled before a crowd of 61,202. He did throw two interceptions, the second setting up a Syracuse touchdown that made it a one-score game late. But he handled himself well considering the new atmosphere.

"It's a big change but this coaching staff has helped me get through this," Hackenberg said. "The team has helped me get through this. I'm just trying to immerse myself in the team and what the coaches are preaching every day.

"A freshman coming in, the first snap was big for me. But once I got that out of the way and started to get more completions under my belt and the team started moving the ball, I was getting more comfortable."

The comfort showed in the numbers. After a first half of nothing but short passes, Hackenberg threw for 209 yards in the second half, including TD passes of 51 yards to Allen Robinson and 54 yards to Geno Lewis. He found Robinson, an all-Big Ten performer who was benched for the first half by coach Bill O'Brien in an apparent disciplinary matter, seven times for 133 yards.

O'Brien, who said the issue with Robinson was "between me and him," liked the poise exhibited by Hackenberg, who completed 22 of 31 passes.

"He's a confident kid," he said. "I think he believes in himself, believes in his teammates. He's got great poise, has a real good demeanor. He's a smart football player for a guy that's 18 years old."

Ferguson, a junior-college transfer, came on in the first quarter, but on his third snap he fumbled the ball away as he drew his arm back. He did not return.

The Penn State defense limited Syracuse to 260 total yards, and held the Orange to just 10 points off four Lions turnovers. Senior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, playing mostly at linebacker for the first time in his career, had a fumble recovery, an interception, and a sack.

Sam Ficken kicked two of his three field goals to give Penn State a 6-3 halftime lead. Robinson entered for the Nittany Lions' first offensive possession of the second half and scored in two plays - a 25-yard catch and a 51-yard touchdown reception.

Syracuse, which went with fifth-year senior Drew Allen at quarterback, scored on a two-play drive of its own in response, but Ficken's career-long 46-yard field goal, followed by Hackenberg's deep ball to Lewis, put Penn State ahead by 13.

The end was dicey. Penn State couldn't move the ball on the ground and the Orange had some chances late. But cornerback Trevor Williams, a converted wide receiver, intercepted Allen with 1:53 to play and the Lions hit I-80 in a positive frame of mind.

That included their quarterback.

"I think it was a great team win," Hackenberg said. "I think it helps us moving on with the season. It's definitely what our goal was and we accomplished it so we've just got to continue to improve."

Contact Joe Juliano at jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @JoeJulesInq

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