EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - More than five weeks ago, Bill O'Brien was asked how he goes about evaluating quarterbacks and what factors go into deciding a starter.
This was before the competition between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson began in preseason camp.
"When you have two guys who are competing and who are both pretty even, then you have to do what you think is best for the team," O'Brien said at the Big Ten Media Days. "It's a little bit more of a labor to figure it out.
"Other times, after five or six practices you just know, 'This guy's got it.' He's instinctive. He's accurate. He's picking it up. He's accurate. He's great in the meetings. He's out on the field being a good leader. You just know he's your guy."
O'Brien knew Hackenberg was going to be his quarterback long before Penn State took the field Saturday against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium. He knew more than two weeks ago after watching about half of preseason camp.
In his first college game, the 18-year-old Hackenberg played with the calm presence of a wily senior. He looked just as self-assured as Matt McGloin did in the opener last year against Ohio, which is remarkable considering his first game was at an NFL stadium before more than 60,000 fans.
"He was very poised and very confident, just like he's been at practice," offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said. "I expected nothing less from him. He's a very mature kid."
Hackenberg completed 22-of-31 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' hard-fought 23-17 victory over Syracuse. He threw two interceptions, one that put the Orange back in the game in the fourth quarter. He took two sacks, holding onto the football too long.
Overall, though, it was an impressive debut for the former five-star recruit.
"He came in and played with poise and played well," center Ty Howle said. "He did the best he could to get us the 'W.' "
O'Brien said he didn't limit his play-calling with Hackenberg, who threw passes to the middle of the field and in traffic. He also made some history by making Hackenberg available for interviews afterwards, probably the first time for a Penn State true freshman after his very first game.
"We dove right in," said Hackenberg, who was careful to say the right things. "I made a few mistakes, but overall the team played really well today. There are a lot of things that we need to improve on and we're going to continue to do that.
"It's great to know they (the coaches) have that confidence in you. It always helps to know that the staff is behind you and what you can do."
One of those plays came in the fourth quarter with Penn State leading 23-10 and facing third-and-11 from its 30. Instead of running a draw play and punting, O'Brien, of course, went for it.
Hackenberg had Brandon Felder open, but he threw behind him and into the arms of defensive end Robert Welsh, who had dropped into pass coverage. Welsh returned it to the 1 to set up a touchdown that made the last few minutes interesting.
"I put him in a bad situation there," O'Brien said. "He made a mistake, but I put him in that position. They dropped a guy out. The guy made a great play. I'm not sure Christian's ever seen that before live in a game, so I have to do a better job.
"He's got a long way to go, but for the first game he did some nice things."
Hackenberg likely will be Penn State's regular quarterback for this season and at least the next two. O'Brien had hoped for that from the day he saw his videotape come across his desk in New England 20 months ago now when he was with the Patriots preparing for the playoffs.
"He stood out to me right away as probably one of the top two or three in the country that I saw," O'Brien said in July. "When I watched the tape I could tell he was a good decision-maker. I felt mechanically he was solid. I felt he was accurate. I saw that he was a bigger guy (now 6-4, 220), which I liked."
When the NCAA sanctions were announced in July 2012, Hackenberg could have said bye-bye to Penn State and could have gone to another school, but he didn't.
"The majority of kids (in that class) stuck with us," O'Brien said, "which says a lot about them, their parents, Penn State and our staff. It meant a lot. It definitely meant a lot to us.
"Christian literally could have gone anywhere in the country. There was a little bit of selling. But by being up front with the parents and the kid, we hoped they would stick with us and they did."
Contact Rich Scarcella: 610-371-5070 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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