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Penn State Football: For Hackenberg Each Pass Is A Decision

by on September 06, 2014 6:00 PM

"With great power, comes great responsibility." -Uncle Ben, The Amazing Spiderman

For a brief moment, Kerry Collins and Christian Hackenberg shared the field at Beaver Stadium. Collins was leaving after a halftime ceremony, Hackenberg was headed back out for the second half.

The two have already been compared. Collins quarterbacked what some feel was the best offense in the history of college football. Hackeneberg continues to assault every quarterbacking record at Penn State.

One played a long career in the NFL, the other is likely headed for a similar future. It's still too early to compare careers at Penn State, but if anyone is slated to give Collins a run for his money atop the hypothetical mountain of Penn State's quarterback rankings, it's Hackenberg.

Those kind of debates come with expectations. And those kind of expectations come with the pressure to perform. Both Collins and Hackenberg faced those pressure, but each did so in a very different setting.

Collins he was one of five All-Americans on the offensive side of the ball in 1994.

Hackenberg -- at least this year -- really has no equal.

Over the past two games Hackenberg has thrown four interceptions. All four passes were the result of trying to do just a little too much - trying a little too hard to do it all on his own. It's Hackenberg trying to make something out of nothing and make those around him even better. But each snap, each pass really boils down to three simple questions.

Can I really make this throw?

What is the smart play?

What will let us live to see the next down?

Finding the answer in a span of nanoseconds is a skill that defines elite quarterbacks as much as their throwing skill. So far Hackeneberg has executed this decision making process correctly on nearly every occasion. He has thrown for 773 yards in two games, completing 66-percent of his passes. His four interceptions have led to only 3 points for the opposition.

There are decisions to make on every play. The decision that puts the expectations of fans and Hackenberg himself directly at a crossroad with the smart play. A constant clash between Hackenberg's own abilities and the implicit demand that he carry the team on his back. A demand that changes week in and week out. But ultimately,  no matter how successful the run game is or isn't, no matter how many catches his receivers and tight ends make, all roads lead to the mind of a 19-year old quarterback.

"I think when you have quarterbacks who have really strong arms and believe in themselves and have talent they're going to try and make some throws that probably other quarterbacks don't," James Franklin said after the game.

"You know, this is part of the growth process, we'll get it resolved. I think Hack has a chance to be really really special and that's an area that we're going to have to work on. There are a lot of things that go into it though. Protection is a part of it. Consistently running out routes the way they're supposed to be run it's never all Hack when things go well and it's never all Hack when you have turnovers like that. But he knows just as well as the rest of us do that he's got to clean those things up, there's no doubt."

And Hackenberg does know it. You can see it after every interception -- a personal frustration as he sees his decision go poorly. The weight of Penn State football is on his shoulders. His teammates are as much a part of the equation to his success as they are failures but the message boards rarely critique the sharpness of the team's route running as they do a quarterback's performance simply on a statistical level.

"i think it's something that I've got to continue to work at and continue to learn," Hackenberg said on Saturday. "It's frustrating because you want to be able to make that throw or make that play and maybe you've done it before and it didn't work out so well that one time. And you know it's something that you've got to continue to learn from and continue to work on in practice and the film room. To understand situations as well, understanding when you can take that shot and that's maybe a little iffy. And throwing two interceptions in the redzone today was not good and it's something you have to improve on."

Hackenberg won't admit that he is under more pressure this year than last and maybe he shouldn't. An army of tight ends and the rapidly maturing likes of DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis coupled with a veteran running back corps certainly spreads the weight around, in theory. So while Hackenberg might be the light that guides Penn State toward the shores of victory, he can't do it on his own.

"I don't think so," Hackenberg said when asked if there is added pressure.  "I've always been like that even back in high school it was one of those things where I always wanted to be that guy with the ball and the guy to be able to make the play. I just think it's one of those things were I have plenty of guys around me who are able to make plays and I just have to get them the ball."

Christian Hackenberg isn't perfect, nor will he ever be. But at this point there are few -- if any -- throws he cannot make, and while not elite his targets have proved themselves to be serviceable. So as things stand two weeks in to the 2014 season, Hackenberg's biggest battle is the one between the ears taking place in six second bursts.

Can I? Should I? Will I?

And if he can start making those decisions even better and faster his seemingly limitless ceiling might extend even higher.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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