Leading into Penn State's season-opener vs. Syracuse, all the talk seemed to surround the starting quarterback. After the game - a 23-17 victory in favor of the Nittany Lions - not much has changed.
This time, however, the fuss isn't about who is starting, but rather, how impressive the starter's performance was.
In his first game action of his career, true freshman Christian Hackenberg tossed for 278 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard touchdown bomb to fellow freshman Geno Lewis that gave the Nittany Lions a lead they would not relinquish.
"He's a young guy who's only 18 and he's got a tremendous future," said head coach Bill O'Brien. "But, we're not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame or certainly the NFL Hall of Fame. We're just saying look, This guy is a talented guy. He's got a long ways to go. It's one game, but he made some nice throws out there and he made some mistakes."
News slowly trickled out toward the end of the week that Hackenberg had secured the starting job over teammate Tyler Ferguson, so when the native of Palmyra, Va., took the opening snap Saturday at MetLife Stadium in front of 61,202 fans, it wasn't necessarily a surprise. What could be considered a surprise, however, was Hackenberg's execution on his first two drives.
He completed his first six consecutive passes, including a 16-yard strike to Matt Lehman, to begin the game. And his exuberance showed as he pumped his fist and jumped up and down in excitement.
On the third drive, Ferguson replaced him - a decision O'Brien promised to the quarterbacks before the game. With his first pass, the junior college transfer from Bakersfield, Calif., found sophomore receiver Matt Zanellato across the middle for an 18-yard gain, which was the longest completion of the first half, but that would be the entirety of Ferguson's success. On the next snap - Ferguson's last - the ball juiced out of his hands without Ferguson being touched by a defender. Syracuse recovered the loose ball and Ferguson didn't return.
The Orange capitalized off the turnover to take the initial lead. They responded with a 7-play, 28-yard drive that ended with a 32-yard field goal from Ross Krautman. Three drives later, Penn State knotted the score with a 36-yard field goal from Sam Ficken. Syracuse wouldn't regain the lead the rest of the afternoon, but it didn't surrender.
While Penn State played behind a freshman QB and kept the offense playbook limited in the first half, Zach Zwinak led the way on the ground. He totaled 52 yards on 13 carries in the first two quarters, and he and the offensive line hit stride on the last drive of the first half, which resulted in a 35-yard Sam Ficken field goal to put the Lions up, 6-3, at the break.
"We were just doing what Coach [Mac] McWhorter taught us to do," said center Ty Howle. "We have to be able to run the ball when we have to. It was a great team win."
After intermission, it almost looked like a completely new ballgame. In four offensive plays within the first two drives of the second half, each team scored a touchdown and tallied a combined 141 yards.
With Allen Robinsonsidelined during the first half due to an undisclosed suspension - the details, O'Brien said, would stay between him and Allen - he returned in the third quarter. And Hackenberg immediately found him twice on the opening drive. The first was a quick-hitter that Robinson took 25 yards for a first down. On the second, Hackenberg found Robinson along the left sideline for a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown. With Ficken's PAT and Hackenberg's first career touchdown throw, PSU took a 13-3 advantage.
On Syracuse's ensuing possession, it began chipping away at the lead. Quarterback Drew Allen, who also won a hotly-contested quarterback battle this summer, found Jeremiah Kobena wide open after running past safety Malcolm Willis. Kobena hauled in the 55-yard pass before Willis pulled him to the ground at the 10. The field position set up a 10-yard TD run by Jerome Smith to tighten the score, 13-10.
Penn State went three-and-out on its next drive, and just when it appeared as if Syracuse could jump back into the lead, Allen threw a pass directly into the lap of senior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. The Penn State safety/linebacker hybrid nabbed the interception and the officials awarded 15 additional yards due to an unsportsmanlike conduct foul on the Orange after the play.
Beginning at the Syracuse 31, the Lions used four plays that resulted in a one-yard loss. But they still managed to scrape together points, as Ficken hit a career-long 46-yard field goal to give them a 16-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
"He's done a helluva job," O'Brien said of the junior kicker. "He deserves it. He's worked extremely hard. Its only one game but i say he should be very proud today for how he kicked the ball."
Penn State quickly got the ball back, and when it did, it only needed one-play to extend its insurmountable lead. And its final scoring play might have been the offensive highlight of the night, as Hackenberg found a wide-open Lewis at the goalline for a 54-yard touchdown pass.
Syracuse tacked on one more touchdown with about seven minutes left in the game, to make it a one-possession game. But the Nittany Lions fended off two more Syracuse drives and sophomore cornerback Trevor Williams put his stamp on the game with a toe-tapping interception along Penn State's sideline with less than two minutes left.
The win wasn't without its downside, though. Lehman went down early in the game with an apparent knee injury and didn't return. Linebacker Mike Hull left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, too. He came back on the field with his knee heavily wrapped for one drive after halftime, but he didn't last. He watched the final minutes of the game from the sideline in street clothes and a ball cap. O'Brien had no update on either injury in his post-game press conference.