Penn State Football: For Better or Worse, Hackenberg and O'Brien's Futures Intertwined
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg stepped on the MetLife Stadium field at 12:43 p.m Saturday to take in the sights one last time. For the 18-year-old it marked the final time he could live behind a wall of expectations before having to step on the field and handle the pressures of meeting them.
As he slowly walked back up the tunnel he broke through the threshold and turned from a prospect into a starting college football quarterback. For those few final moments he was still just a kid a few weeks removed from his prom.
Hackenberg’s story started over a year ago when he signed on the dotted line and became a Nittany Lion. He could have gone anywhere, but he chose Penn State; a program that faces long odds even in the eyes of the most devout fans. Nobody in the country would have blamed one of the nation’s top prospects if he had picked a path with fewer obstacles in his way.
Similarly for O'Brien, the up-and-coming coach could have found a job that required a few less hours putting out fires and a few more hours focusing on football.
Neither of them had to come to Penn State but yet they both did. And in regards to the big picture they both have a similar goal.
In terms of Hackenberg, his goal is to play in the NFL. His unwavering commitment to O'Brien illustrates a confidence in his coach's ability to get him there, a confidence O’Brien earned and that Hackenberg did not owe him. Sanctions and bowl bans are truly secondary to what Hackenberg is working towards. The real reward is the coaching he's getting from O'Brien and the real goal is the NFL.
From the standpoint of Penn State’s second year head coach, it seems unlikely that at the end of his career O'Brien will have never left Happy Valley. His admiration for the NFL coaching ranks is too apparent. It's not a sign that he is leaving anytime soon or even at all, but merely an observation that O'Brien is a man built and born for coaching in the NFL.
For both Hackenberg and O'Brien, their personal success largely relies on the success of their counterpart. If O’Brien is to build an NFL resume on the resurrection and rebuilding of Penn State football he needs Hackenberg. If Hackenberg’s gamble on Penn State is going to lead to the NFL he needs O’Brien’s coaching.
So their journey took its first meaningful step forward on Saturday.
The younger of the two had a historic day. Hackenberg became the 27th quarterback in Penn State history to pass for 200 yards in a game and fell only three yards shy of setting Penn State's freshman single-game passing record. His 22-of-31 passing night wasn’t without errors but as Hackenberg tossed an effortless 54-yard bomb to freshman Eugene Lewis there was a collective feeling that flowed through the stadium that this guy is different.
"He's a very poised kid," O'Brien said. "He's got a fantastic demeanor. He's got great parents and I think that's one of the things that stood out to me in recruiting, that he's a young guy, he's only 18. He's got a tremendous future but we're not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame and certainly not the NFL Hall of Fame. We're just saying he's a talented guy. He's got a long way to go."
"It's one game. He made some nice throws. He made some mistakes. I made some bad play calls, put him in some bad situations and we'll just keep learning from each other and he's a fun guy to coach."
... “Each other" ...
From here on their road together will have ups and downs. Hackenberg showed flashes of brilliance to go along with freshman mistakes. O’Brien called a smart game, but found flaws in his performance. Neither will find success without falling prey to the occasional failure. Even Saturday’s success comes with the caveat of Syracuse’s standing in the college football world. The Ohio States and Michigans still wait down the road with national championship dreams in their sights.
But for fans it isn’t a bittersweet story. In many ways if O’Brien were to take an NFL job it wouldn’t be without Penn State succeeding at a high level. The collective success of O’Brien and Hackenberg is perhaps a pathway towards success that the program has not tasted in decades.
The only certainty for Penn State is that the future is uncertain, but the program took a positive step forward on Saturday; and if Hackenberg and O’Brien both find themselves stepping onto the MetLife Stadium field years from now in an NFL game, worse things could have -- and have -- happened to the program.
Nothing is a guarantee but when great talent meets great coaching it very rarely ever ends poorly. So buckle up Penn State fans, the story of Christian Hackenberg and Bill O’Brien has only just begun.