COLUMBUS — There’s a joke making the rounds in the Big Ten that maybe they ought to just name the conference’s freshman-of-the-week honors the Christian Hackenberg Award.
After all, it seems he wins it every week.
Penn State’s rookie quarterback gets his biggest test to date when he plays at No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday night. The Buckeyes are spending a lot of time working on how they’ll go about preventing him from winning the honor a fourth time.
It’s overstating it to say the defense is licking its chops to get at Hackenberg. By the same token, it’s well aware of the mayhem that can ensue when a first-year quarterback catches a lot of heat.
“We know that if we put some pressure on him he’s going to get a little bit nervous,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “And I think we have the guys to put pressure on him. If we get into the pocket like we do against most teams, he might get a little nervous and force some throws.”
Hackenberg’s coach, Bill O’Brien, is concerned about the atmosphere at Ohio Stadium.
“You can’t put 90,000 people around your practice field cheering against you,” he said.
Still, pressure hasn’t really cooked Hackenberg yet. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who played last year at Fork Union Military Academy has seemed pretty unfazed by anything he’s seen so far.
In his first college game, in front of 61,202 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., he led the Lions to a tense
23-17 win over Syracuse. That building will host the Super Bowl next year.
After the game he was so even-tempered and cool it seemed as if he had just watched somebody else play.
“It was awesome,” he said. “Everything I thought it would be. I need to be a little bit smarter with the ball at times but overall I felt pretty comfortable with what I was doing.”
That doesn’t sound like a nervous kid.
He’s thrown for at least 300 yards in half of his six starts, leads the Big Ten in completions (132) and passing yards per game (279) and is fourth in total offense. He’s hitting more than half of his passes for 1,672 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer admires how Hackenberg has played, while conceding he would prefer to have a veteran quarterback.
“You are seeing freshmen (quarterbacks) play a little bit,” he said. “I’d hesitate to do that. We did it with Tim Tebow a little bit (at Florida), but he was a part-time player. I’d be hesitant to play a freshman. You want the kid to come in and learn and then take over.”
It’s not like Hackenberg has a fearsome running attack on which to lean, either. The Nittany Lions haven’t topped 85 yards rushing in half of their games, so the entire offense has rested on the kid’s shoulders.
Few first-year players have the temperament to handle huge games. Hackenberg might be the exception.
“One of the things that has struck me about Christian since the day I met him, which was a junior day almost two years ago now, is his demeanor,” O’Brien said. “He’s a calm guy. He’s got a quiet confidence about him. When the game starts, everybody involved is really just focused on the game, not the 90,000, 100,000 people sitting in the stands. You have to deal with the noise and things like that. You’re just very focused on what your job is on that play, and the next play and the next play.
“That’s probably what he thinks about.”
Hackenberg is coming off a dramatic 43-40, four-overtime upset of Michigan two weeks ago in which he completed 23 of 44 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions.
“He’s shown a lot of poise there,” Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. “He throws the ball well, has a strong arm, good skill, good tight ends, good backs and a veteran offensive line. (The past two days) we’re in there looking at them now and seeing how we’re going to do it.”
There’s also pressure on the Buckeyes. Their defense has a lot to prove after getting roughed up last week by Iowa in a 34-24 victory that stretched Ohio State’s win streak to 19 in a row.
“We can’t let the quarterback sit back there,” Bennett said. “The expectations for the defensive line are really high, especially in our unit room. We really expect a lot out of ourselves. We really need to start taking ownership of the pass as well.”
AP sportswriter Dan Gelston contributed from Philadelphia. Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP.
WHO: No. 4 Ohio State vs. Penn State
WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Ohio Stadium, Columbus
TV/RADIO: Channel 5; WEOL 930-AM, WKNR 850-AM