COLLINS: Nittany Lions will only go as far as Hackenberg will take them
STATE COLLEGE — It's fair to say 2013 is a distant memory now. The days when all of Happy Valley seemed to think Christian Hackenberg would be the most decorated quarterback in the nation someday are fading.
These are the days, now, when week to week, even snap to snap, fans wonder what they're going to get from their junior quarterback. A beautifully thrown out pattern to the far sideline, across two-thirds of the field and into the waiting hands of a receiver camped just at the sticks? A deep ball that arcs high and long and drops, nose first into a receiver in one-on-one coverage up the seam — the type of throw you'd need John Facenda's voice to aptly describe?
Or, a fastball that comes lands farther away from the intended receiver than it does the fourth-stringers standing near the training table? A screen pass at the shoetops? Or a pass never thrown, because he's being dropped for a sack?
He's either a sure-fire first-round pick or a guy who will never live up to immense potential, depending on which side of the issue's 50-yard-line you stand. Most agree he's a pro-style quarterback who is playing in an offense that doesn't suit his skill set, that he's a player trapped in and by his surroundings, unable to transcend it.
And then, you get a day like Saturday, when it all makes sense. When his potential becomes reality. When his talent takes over. When he's not being judged on what he could become, but thriving on what he is.
Not perfect: Hackenberg wasn't perfect Saturday. He threw some one-hoppers. He threw some fastballs high and wide. But all in all, Penn State convincingly beat Indiana, 29-7, extended its winning streak to five games and went to 2-0 in the Big Ten because Hackenberg gave the type of performance befitting his legend.
He went 21 for 39 for 262 yards and two touchdowns passing, then ran for two more touchdowns, picking up yards in chunks on the ground when the pocket broke down. In the past, he has looked, at times like a quarterback trying to figure out the system. On Saturday, he looked like a quarterback playing quarterback. When he felt the pressure, he threw the ball away. When he saw the field open up in front of him, he took the yardage. When he rolled out to his right in the second quarter from the 1-yard line and saw tight end Kyle Carter break wide open, he tucked the ball under and ran it in. No unnecessary risks. No chance for error.
As it all happened, it should have occurred to Penn State that this looked rather unsurprisingly like a trend that was set back in 2013. When Hackenberg plays well, so does the offense.
"We understood that, each week, it's going to be different," Hackenberg said. "We know that whatever we're asked to do, we have to go out and execute it at a high level and with great intensity. I thought we were able to do that today, for the most part. We were able to do things today to get the ball rolling."
In other words, the offense needed a catalyst.
Hackenberg is PSU's main man: Hackenberg is too modest to admit it, but he has to be that guy. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions were without running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch again. This is an offensive line that has struggled since the start of the 2014 season, and it seemed on the verge of collapse in pass coverage at points in the second half against Indiana. The receivers are talented, but they're young, and they haven't exactly been consistent.
Meanwhile, Hackenberg is the blue-chipper, the guy who his teammates look to when the going gets tough.
"If he's on his game," Carter said, "the offense is on their game."
Think playing quarterback is just about calling the plays, reading defenses and making the throws? It's so much more than that. On days like Saturday, when Hackenberg is feeling the momentum, it's impossible not to notice the rest of the team feeling it, too.
"It's always great to see one of your leaders, a guy like Hack, have a lot of fun out there," redshirt freshman running back Nick Scott said. "I feed off of his energy when he's in the huddle, joking around and everything like that. That calms the whole team down.
"He was just loving life in the huddle. He was having fun. He was talking to us and everything. I was joking with him after his long run (in the second quarter). He was breathing so heavy. I made a remark about how it wasn't 22 carries, it was just 22 yards. The whole huddle cracked up. We were just having a good time, trying to play hard and have some fun."
Bigger challenges ahead: There are going to be bigger challenges ahead for Hackenberg and this offense. The Hoosiers are a team that ranks last in the Big Ten in total defense, and its game plan hasn't changed much week to week. They load up the box to try to stop the run — which they didn't do against Penn State — and dare quarterbacks to beat them deep. This defense fell right into Hackenberg's wheelhouse, and he took advantage. He did what a great quarterback is supposed to do.
But how far Penn State goes from here depends on whether he can be a great quarterback, consistently, over the next six weeks.
It might not get that consistency from its young receivers or its young running backs. It likely won't get it from the line, either.
And so, the season marches on. It stops in Columbus next week. Penn State could sure use the momentum it built this week against the top-ranked Buckeyes.
That game, the Nittany Lions will need the quarterback who gave the momentum to them so much more.