STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Christian Hackenberg has more fun when he's throwing the football down the field.
He got plenty of opportunities to do that Saturday as San Diego State stacked defenders at the line of scrimmage, daring Hackenberg to beat them with his arm. He did just that.
Hackenberg threw three touchdown passes and Penn State beat San Diego State 37-21.
Hackenberg was 21 of 35 for 296 yards passing and connected on scoring strikes to Saquon Barkley, Mark Allen, and Chris Godwin. Saeed Blacknall added four catches for 101 yards for Penn State (3-1), which scored on three of its first four possessions and added 21 points off of turnovers.
Defensive tackle Austin Johnson returned a fumble 71 yards, and Joey Julius kicked three field goals for the Nittany Lions.
"We have the guys who can press the defense and challenge the secondary with speed. We're getting guys down there and we're going to continue to work that," Hackenberg said.
After opting for a run-first approach the last two weeks, Hackenberg used the deep ball to set up Penn State's first two scores.
He hit Blacknall for a 45-yard gain before Barkley scored on a 22-yard check-down pass — bouncing off and spinning around defenders along the way — to give Penn State a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
"Obviously, whenever you can get the ball down the field, it helps with the short stuff," Penn State coach James Franklin said.
After San Diego State's Rashaad Penny returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to tie the game, Julius kicked a 40-yard field goal. Hackenberg began the second quarter with a 46-yard strike to Blacknall to set up a 24-yard field goal from Julius six plays later to give Penn State a 13-7 lead.
The Aztecs (1-3) took their only lead of the game on their next possession when Maxwell Smith found Mikah Holder in tight coverage for a 19-yard touchdown pass. Penny played a big part, taking a first-down carry 55 yards to set up the score.
Penn State missed a chance to regain the lead when a 55-yard kick from Julius was blocked. The Nittany Lions next drive stalled at their own 29, but they got the ball right back when Godwin hopped on a muffed punt by Lloyd Mills.
Already without Barkley, who left the game in the first half with an apparent ankle injury, Penn State lost Akeel Lynch to a left leg injury moments later. The Nittany Lions turned to 5-foot-6 sophomore Allen at running back, and Hackenberg found him right away for a 13-yard touchdown and a 20-14 lead.
Penn State added another touchdown off an Aztec turnover. Sophomore Garrett Sickels stripped D.J. Pumphrey deep in San Diego State territory. Anthony Zettel — playing just hours after learning of the death of his father due to cancer — recovered the fumble. Hackenberg then hit Godwin over the middle six plays later to give Penn State a 27-14 lead at halftime.
Penn State's offense was slow to start the second half. The Nittany Lions punted three times and DeAndre Thompkins muffed a punt.
Johnson gave his teammates a lift, however. Defensive end Carl Nassib drilled Smith and knocked the ball loose. Johnson picked it up, and the 323-pounder rumbled untouched for a touchdown.
He said he was thinking of his best friend Zettel as he ran toward the end zone. "I was playing for Z and his dad," Johnson said.
Pumphrey added a 1-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter. Julius kicked a 26-yard field goal to cap the scoring.
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