It is fortunate that Penn State’s football team only faced six quality opponents this 2015 season. That is because with a thirteen game schedule, including the TaxSlayer bowl, it meant that the Nittany Lions would have its second consecutive winning season under head coach James Franklin after losing all six of those quality opponent games. It is a thin thread to hang on if you are a Penn State fan, but given all that the team has endured since the beginning of the Sandusky scandal, most will take it. That is because It also meant that Penn State posted winning records in all four seasons since the death of former head coach Joe Paterno and the initial imposition of what was essentially the equivalent of the NCAA’s death penalty (sharp curtailment of scholarships, steep fine, and prohibition from the post-season) on the program.
The face of the program for three of four of those years (Matt McGloin was quarterback in the first year of current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien’s tenure as successor to Joe Paterno) was quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg was the last five-star recruit who committed before the revelation of the Sandusky’s child molestation crimes committed under the guise of the former assistant coach’s Second Mile charity resulted in the most severe sanctions imposed by the NCAA on a football program since the SMU scandal. Rejecting other offers from top schools like Alabama and Florida, Hackenberg stuck it out at Penn State, the school from his home state, but an institution he really never knew or to whom he never had any sort of obligation. It is likely that the hiring of a former New England Patriots assistant coach and the prospect of a pro-style offense had a lot to do with that decision, but for all we know it was a character challenge from which he refused to back down.
Hackenberg’s loyalty was rewarded with a starting role in all three years of his collegiate career. After having a breakout freshman year (in a team stacked with Paterno’s old recruits), his production fell in his sophomore and then again in his junior year, with declines in either his pass completion percentage or pass yardage, or both. Never better than a 59%-completion passer whose completion numbers fell off drastically when considering attempts in excess of ten yards, he failed to develope into the deep threat that most thought he would, and his lack of mobility meant that his negative yardage plays often hurt the team.
Probably the worst aspect of Hackenberg’s Penn State career was his uncanny knack in throwing a momentum-killing or game-losing interception or yielding a sack. Some of this was undoubtedly caused by Penn State’s weak offensive line play and the lack of a truly dominant running threat that could keep defensive ends and blitzing players from the secondary from pinning their ears back. Regardless of the reasons, Hackenberg’s worst moments always seem to come against the teams with more athletic players. The result of this tendency has meant that the Nittany Lions have been a doormat for Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State, the three leading programs of the Big 10, and have been red meat for any given season’s two or three hot teams of the conference that were not the big 3.
Although Georgia was about a touchdown favorite in the 2015 season-closing TaxSlayer Bowl, many viewed the Bulldogs as vulnerable, particularly after a close call by in-state rival Georgia Southern. And the naysayers were proven somewhat right after two quarters of ineptitude from both teams in the game. Hackenberg was unable to produce any significant offense, and actually went down with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. Georgia’s QB Lambert was even worse, so despite Penn State’s weak offensive play, it took a trick play and a batted-down Hail Mary in the second half to seal the deal for the Bulldogs. Penn State went home the losers in head coach Franklin’s second bowl game at Penn State (he won in his first year) and Hackenberg declared for the 2016 NFL draft after the game.
It was an tough end of Franklin’s season, where he lost four straight games to quality opponents, but he was still able to post a 4-4 conference record, a significant improvement from the 2-6 record of his first year. Plus there is still room for further optimism, as Franklin continues to overcome the recruiting shortcomings of prior head coach O’Brien and install the players he wants for the system he was so successful with at SEC’s Vanderbilt. And it seems likely he will get that chance at Penn State, with the school’s administration and board of trustees still in need of purging of the all the incompetents who were largely responsible for the Sandusky debacle and its aftermath.
As for Hackenberg, he rides off into the sunset with Penn State’s overall gratitude, best wishes of luck at the NFL draft, and a collective sigh of relief. His departure signals the closure of a painful chapter at Penn State and the true beginning of a new one. Let us hope it is the start of another golden football era at Penn State.
After all, it is going to take at least several ten-win seasons before the Penn State Alumni Association will be able to get Paterno’s statue out of storage. And when it takes its rightful place back out in front of Beaver Stadium, all will know the Nittany Lions are back.
5/5/2017 update. Hackenberg was drafted in 2016 in the 2nd round (51st overall) by the New York Jets. After two preseason performances with below average statistics he sat on the bench as the fourth string QB for the entire regular season. Penn State head coach James Franklin followed the 7-6 2015 season and a TaxSlayer bowl appearance with a 11-3 record, Big 10 championship, and Rose Bowl appearance, where the Nittany Lions were outlasted by USC 52-49.
2/7/2018 update. Hackenberg has failed to catch on with the Jets and has been relegated to third string backup in spite of persistent quarterback performance woes, although he has not been cut.