There’s a joke making the rounds in the Big Ten that maybe they ought to just name the freshman-of-the-week honors in the conference the Christian Hackenberg Award.
After all, it seems he wins it every week.
Penn State’s rookie quarterback gets his biggest test to date when he plays at No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday night. The Buckeyes are spending a lot of time working on how they’ll go about preventing him from winning the honor a fourth time.
It’s overstating it to say the defense is licking its chops to get at Hackenberg. By the same token, it is well aware of the mayhem that can ensue when a first-year quarterback catches a lot of heat.
“We know that if we put some pressure on him he’s going to get a little bit nervous,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “And I think we have the guys to put pressure on him. If we get into the pocket like we do against most teams, he might get a little nervous and force some throws.”
Hackenberg’s coach, Bill O’Brien, is concerned about the atmosphere at Ohio Stadium.
“You can’t put 90,000 people around your practice field cheering against you,” he said.
Still, pressure hasn’t really cooked Hackenberg yet. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who played last year at Fork Union Military Academy has seemed pretty unfazed by anything he’s seen so far.
In his very first college game, in front of 61,202 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., he led the Lions to a tense 23-17 win over Syracuse. That building will host the Super Bowl next year.
After the game he was so even-tempered and cool it seemed as if he had just watched somebody else play.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Everything I thought it would be. I need to be a little bit smarter with the ball at times but overall I felt pretty comfortable with what I was doing.”
That doesn’t sound like a nervous kid.
He’s thrown for at least 300 yards in half of his six starts, leads the Big Ten in completions (132) and passing yards per game (279) and is fourth in total offense. He’s hitting over half of his passes for 1,672 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer admires how Hackenberg has played, while conceding he would prefer to have a veteran signal-caller.
“You are seeing freshmen (quarterbacks) play a little bit,” he said. “I’d hesitate to do that. We did it with Tim Tebow a little bit (at Florida), but he was a part-time player. I’d be hesitant to play a freshman. You want the kid to come in and learn and then take over.”