Christian Hackenberg is a true freshman quarterback.

If Penn State is going to salvage a winning season in 2013, he better stop playing like one.

Hackenberg is not playing poorly, but he's not exactly lighting the world on fire, either.

He's shown flashes of brilliance along with stretches of mediocrity.

One minute, he's throwing a laser into a tight window for a game-winning touchdown. The next, he's over throwing a wide-open receiver or inexplicably fumbling the ball without being touched.

In other words, he's performing exactly how you would expect a true freshman teenager, blessed with serious physical gifts, to play.

There's just one problem --this Penn State team simply isn't good enough to overcome Hackenberg's mistakes.

The NCAA sanctions have left a team lacking in depth, speed and playmakers, especially on the defensive side of the football.

For these Nittany Lions to win consistently, the offense must score points -- lots of points.

With loads of experience on the offensive line, as well as at running back and at receiver, the Lions should be able to produce some points, especially in a Big Ten that boasts few, if any, strong defensive units.

But the Lions continue to struggle on offense, and much of that blame must be placed at the feet of Hackenberg and his head coach, Bill O'Brien.

Put simply, Hackenberg hasn't shown as much improvement as you would like to see over the course of nine games as a starter. O'Brien, for his part, has already admitted he has to coach this team better. That should start with his young QB.

Hackenberg's numbers aren't terrible. He's completing 58.2 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He's throwing for 243 yards per game. His 127.0 passing rating is eighth in the Big Ten.

In comparison, last year's starting quarterback, Matt McGloin, completed 60.5 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and only five picks. He threw for 273.6 yards per game. McGloin's passing rating of 137.7 was fourth in the Big Ten.

Is that a fair comparison? Obviously not. McGloin, though lacking Hackenberg's size and arm, was a fifth-year senior with loads of experience. McGloin's numbers should be better.

Still, in this age of high-octane offense, it's become clear that Penn State's quarterback play this season has been average, at best.

That needs to change over the next three weeks, and it should start this Saturday at Beaver Stadium against a Purdue team that is 1-8 overall and 0-5 in the Big Ten. Purdue has allowed 31 points or more in seven of its nine games. There is no reason Penn State shouldn't become the eighth team to turn that trick against the Boilermakers, especially at home.

If the Lions can beat Purdue -- the oddsmakers have made them a whopping 221/2-point favorite -- then they'll improve to 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten.

They would then have to beat either Nebraska at home or Wisconsin on the road to finish with a winning record. Both of those teams are 7-2, but Nebraska, which is without star quarterback Taylor Martinez, would appear to be the more likely victory, especially at Beaver Stadium.

But the Lions must first beat Purdue on Saturday.

An easy victory vs. the Boilermakers, with a strong performance from Hackenberg, would be just the confidence boost the Lions need going into the final two games.

It's the 10th game of the season. Hackenberg has started every one of them and taken nearly every snap.

It's time that the Virginia teen stop playing like a true freshman.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dis patch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdis patch.com.