Syracuse running back Jerome Smith breaks away from Penn State safety Malcolm Willis during the first quarter.
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
Syracuse cornerback Keon Lyn attempts to stop Penn State wide receiver Brandon Felder during the second quarter.
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
Penn State running back Bill Belton breaks away from Syracuse tackle Zian Jones (77) and Ron Thompson (13).
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When he started fielding questions after the game, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg's face radiated a reddish hue. It was the tired look of a completed game; it was a reminder of what Penn State fans had just learned and seen for the previous 3 1/2 hours: Hackenberg, a freshman, was Penn State's quarterback.
When he took the first snap Saturday afternoon, the biggest question of the preseason had been answered, but the interest, even mystery, surrounding this team should continue through the season as a young group seeks to define itself. As Hackenberg and Penn State illustrated in a 23-17 victory against Syracuse Saturday, they are capable of some serious highs -- wide receiver Allen Robinson, goodness -- and some costly lows -- two interceptions, particularly one late in the fourth quarter that stung.
Let's start there. Penn State eventually sealed the win on cornerback Trevor Williams' interception with less than two minutes left but Syracuse had that opportunity largely because Hackenberg threw an interception.
With seven minutes left, on a third-and-11 at Penn State's 32 and the Nittany Lions up, 23-10, Hackenberg's pass was intercepted by defensive end Robert Welsh. He ran the ball 31 yards to the 1. The Orange would score a touchdown.
"I made a mistake," Hackenberg said.
For Penn State to be in this position, though, Hackenberg had played his fair share of mistake-free football. With about 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, wide receiver Geno Lewis pirouetted through Syracuse's secondary on a post pattern, bursting free near the end zone. Hackenberg hit him in stride for a 54-yard touchdown pass.
A question about this particular play after the game led coach Bill O'Brien to minimize, jokingly, the importance of his quarterback ("Lewis did a great job. All Hackenberg had to do was throw it."). But he was pleased with Hackenberg's poise and confident in him. That's why he elected to call a pass on the third-and-long play that ended up as a crucial turnover.
"This is Penn State," O'Brien said. "We can't dip our toe in the water. We have to come out, ready to go."
Williams' game-saving interception was just exhibit M, or so, of the defense's productivity Saturday. Syracuse's rushing offense, which features two running backs who combined for 2,001 yards last year, picked up 71 yards on 37 carries.
Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a New York City native, finished with eight tackles and a sack, which looked as though it inflicted serious pain on Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen.
"I can't wait to see it on film," Obeng-Agyapong said.
Allen was also flattened by defensive tackle Da'Quan Jones, who finished with nine tackles. Despite sustaining an injury to Mike Hull (he didn't play in the second half; O'Brien said he couldn't comment on the injury) and already being light on depth, the defense proved to be consistent for Penn State.
One of O'Brien's favorite terms of coachspeak is "complementary football;" it basically means that the offense, defense and special teams must build off each other and help each other. And the offense needed to be helped out at times.
Some of its inconsistency was destined to occur before the game started.
Robinson, who led the Big Ten in receiving yards last year, did not play in the first half for reasons O'Brien declined to specify. He changed the game as soon as he entered, scoring a touchdown on his second play.
Plays like that, along with the pass to Lewis, offered the bright side, or as many fans surely hope, the budding of a something bigger and better. Hackenberg-Robinson-Lewis, et al) could be a wonderful grouping for the future of this season. As any coach would, O'Brien cautioned against looking ahead.
He said the competition between Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson had been close. He liked Hackenberg's performances in practice, but noted that he still committed plenty of mistakes.
Saturday, he made some of those, but he also played in a pro stadium in front of 61,000 fans, threw two touchdown passes and even pooch-punted the ball, aware of how far he has come and cognizant of where he wants to go.
"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 really trying to immerse myself in the team and get better every day."