Penn State Football: As The Nittany Lions Win, Hackenberg Passes His Midterms
If you're going to be a great player you only get a few chances to really prove it.
Penn State's 18-year-old gunslinger Christian Hackenberg made his case on Saturday night against Michigan in a 43-40, four-overtime victory.
The true freshman quarterback threw for 305 yards, 3 touchdowns, and ran for another score en-route to an unforgettable come-from-behind win.
Hackenberg wasn't perfect on Saturday -- his two interceptions are a sign that he is still growing -- but the things that transcend the box score are the most noticeable tools Hackenberg possessed on Saturday night.
Nothing seemed to rattle him, nothing seemed to be too big of an obstacle to overcome, and his confidence as he drove Penn State down the field to tie the game was unquestionable.
For Hackenberg it was just another game in a long, but quickly shortening season.
But it wasn't really just any other game.
Penn State and Michigan have provided college football fans with some of the great games in the history of the sport. It's a chance for two of the nation's most prestigious programs to flex their muscles and earn the bragging rights until the next meeting.
The Nittany Lions are still putting distance between the football program and a nine-game losing streak against the Wolverines. It was a span of almost 4,000 days -- filled with pent up frustration and denial for all Penn State fans.
For Michigan it's a chance to maintain a dominating presence as one of the Big Ten's elite. This season, they hoped to keep an undefeated season alive.
Penn State extended its own winning streak against the Wolverines to four games this past weekend. And that streak carries a pointed message -- that Michigan can no longer pencil in the Nittany Lions in the Wolverines' win column.
In terms of Hackenberg's growing maturity under center: anyone watching the game on Saturday with a measurable pulse clearly saw a career defining moment in only the sixth game of a young man's collegiate career. Down by seven, Hackenberg orchestrated an 80-yard drive with no timeouts and 50 seconds to go.
If Kerry Collins' 96-yard march against Illinois in 1994 is considered The Drive, then Hackenberg played a leading role in its 2013 sequel with Robinson and Felder up for Best Supporting Actor.
The opening act of Saturday's drive was a 14-yard sideline grab by Allen Robinson. That was quickly followed by a catch in traffic by Brandon Felder for 29-yards. Then, with a toss that flew through the air for what seemed like an eternity, Hackenberg hoisted a 36-yard pass to a leaping Allen Robinson who fell to the ground at the one-yard-line to set-up Hackenberg's eventual sneak into the endzone.
"(Robinson) and I are always talking," Hackenberg said shortly after the game. "All my receivers, we're always just talking about what they see, what type of feel they have for the defense, how the corners are playing. He and I have a great relationship. It goes back to the hours we put in in the summer."
"Those are situations that we practice every day," Coach Bill O'Brien said following the game. "You guys know that. We practice two-minute situations every day. That one that we had at the end of the game, we practiced that just the other day. I think it was 50 seconds left in the game and we had the ball from our own 25 or 30 yard line."
"We knew there were specific plays we wanted to run there and we just needed the line to block well and they did. We were able to come up with some big plays. I think Christian is, obviously, a very mature quarterback for being 18 years old. He's a fun guy to coach. Some of that was training to and that paid off."
But O'Brien has his team practice a lot of things, and they're executed with mixed results.
Bad quarterbacks -- quarterbacks with little future or no real potential -- fail to make the throws that Hackenberg continually makes. He made some great throws with Penn State was standing on the precipice of defeat.
Those plays are the difference between good quarterbacks and quarterbacks that will be a blip on the ever-lengthening story of college football.
Hackenberg's story doesn't just end now. He isn't playing a video game and has suddenly unlocked the "Destined for Greatness" achievement. He'll be the first to tell you that you can't rely on past performances to win future games. There will still be bumps in the road and mistakes to be made, as Hackenberg continues to grow and mature.
But at the halfway mark of Christian Hackenberg's freshman season, he was presented with tests of his character, mettle, and ability.
And it's safe to say he passed all three.