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Why Christian Hackenberg Is Keeping Urban Meyer Up at Night

Oct 12, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) signals during the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan 43-40 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Brian PedersenFeatured Columnist IVNovember 15, 2016

A name like Christian Hackenberg isn't the kind that automatically strikes fear in the hearts of men, unless maybe if you're an underdog character in a 1980s college movie.

Then why would someone as successful and established in the game of college football be so worried about a guy with a evil frat boy villain kind of name?

Because when you're Urban Meyer, and you've never lost at Ohio State—yet still are looked at nationally as a question mark of a national title contender—you fear anything that can derail those championship plans. Especially something that likely will exacerbate the Buckeyes' already struggling pass defense.

OSU is 79th nationally in pass defense, allowing 240.7 yards per game, and its pass efficiency defense is 72nd. Not the kind of numbers you'd expect from the defense of a Top 5 team.

Meyer referred to his pass defense situation this week as "alarming," acknowledging how his team's 4-2-5 defense is getting burned a lot. And that's even before facing the combo of Hackenberg and Allen Robinson, PSU's top receiver who has four games with more than 120 yards this season.

Hackenberg, a true freshman quarterback who came to Penn State as the top-rated passer in last year's recruiting class, has so far done little to disappoint Nittany Lions fans. He's already won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award three times, most recently in PSU's last game when he piloted the team to a thrilling 43-40, four-overtime win over Michigan.

The 6'4", 220 pounder comes into Saturday's prime-time game at Ohio Stadium averaging 278.7 passing yards per game, with three of his outings results in 300-yard efforts. While his accuracy has been off as of late—Hackenberg's last three games have seen him complete just 66-of-134 throws, a 49.2 percent clip, compared to a 71.7 percent rate (66-of-92) in the Lions' first three games—that hasn't kept him from looking strong each and every week.

Which brings us to why OSU's Meyer is worried about Hackenberg, even if his comments to reporters this week made it seem otherwise.

The fact of the matter is, though the Buckeyes are 7-0 this season they've been bad at defending the pass. In fact, for many opposing quarterbacks on the 2013 schedule, the OSU game has been among their best, if not the top performance this season.

Opposing quarterbacks vs. Ohio State in 2013
Name, schoolvs. Ohio StateSeason numbers
Jared Goff, California371 yards, 3 TDs322.3 ypg, 9 TDs
Joel Stave, Wisconsin295 yards, 2 TDs214.3 ypg, 13 TDs
Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian, Northwestern343 yards, 2 TDs244.1 ypg, 10 TDs
Jake Rudock, Iowa245 yards, 3 TDs206.7 ypg, 11 TDs
NCAA.com

Ohio State's pass defense has made some pretty average passers look like world beaters:

* Goff, another freshman who for a while was outperforming Hackenberg statistically and intangibly, has seen his production and effectiveness plummet since Cal's 52-34 home loss to OSU, so much so he's now in a battle for his starting job.

* Stave, as pedestrian and bland as any QB in the college game today, had a career passing day in Wisconsin's seven-point loss in Columbus.

* Northwestern's two-headed quarterback rotation of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined for 343 yards and three TDs against the Buckeyes, with Colter completing all 12 of his passes and Siemian averaging 13.6 yards per attempt.

Northwestern has gone into the tank since that game, with the two QBs completing under 50 percent of their throws for 431 yards and one TD with three interceptions in the last two games.

* Even Iowa's Jake Rudock looked like a stud against OSU, throwing for 245 yards and three TDs, including an 85-yard scoring strike to Jake Duzey that tied the game at 24 late in the third quarter last week.

Hackenberg is a better pure passer than each of those guys, so imagine what kind of numbers he might put up.

Oct 5, 2013; Bloomington, IN, USA;  Indiana Hoosiers defensive end Nick Mangieri (56) knocks the ball away from Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) for a safety at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

If the Buckeyes are going to neutralize Hackenberg, a pure pocket passer who doesn't move around much, they'll need to do it first and foremost up front.

OSU has 16 sacks in seven games, while Hackenberg has been brought down behind the line of scrimmage 14 times. This fact isn't lost on defensive end Michael Bennett when speaking to the Associated Press this week:

We know that if we put some pressure on (Hackenberg) he's going to get a little bit nervous. 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.

But despite being able to get pressure on quarterbacks, OSU's secondary still isn't living up to its end of the deal by properly covering opposing receivers. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis had 10 catches for 207 yards against OSU, for instance.

Penn State may not be able to beat Ohio State on Saturday night, but that doesn't mean Meyer won't be sweating each and every time Hackenberg drops back to throw.

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