True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg will face his biggest road test of the season this weekend, when the Nittany Lions take on Ohio State at night in a hostile environment at Ohio Stadium.
Hackenberg has been solid so far this year, throwing for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns to go against six interceptions. He'll face an Ohio State pass defense that has had its struggles this year.
Penn State last played in Columbus in 2011, when it escaped with a 20-14 victory behind Stephfon Green's two touchdowns. The Nittany Lions are 7-9 all time on the road against the Buckeyes.
Here are five keys for Christian Hackenberg's success come Saturday night.
If Penn State expects to go toe-to-toe with Ohio State, it will need to hold onto the ball. In a game filled with statistics, time of possession is probably an important one.
Hackenberg can't afford to try to do too much when he's in passing situations. When this happens, he—or any other quarterback, for that matter—tends to force balls into traffic that run the risk of being intercepted. Especially for a young quarterback, sometimes the desire to make a big play overshadows smart decision-making.
Through seven games this year, Ohio State has forced 13 turnovers. With an attack as potent as the Buckeyes'—they are ranked 20th in the nation in total offense—Ohio State is a threat to score at any time. Penn State needs to hang onto the ball when it has it, and Hackenberg is a big part of that responsibility.
With some of the Big Ten's top targets in guys like Allen Robinson and Kyle Carter, Hackenberg has weapons that can find space for themselves. He needs to trust his receivers to find soft spots in coverage and create an opportunity for him to throw them the ball.
In a factoid that seems a little out of the ordinary, Hackenberg has thrown at least one interception in each of Penn State's four wins this year but none in the two losses. You should anticipate an environment and team like Ohio State to be less forgiving and to buck the trend if it can take the ball away.
While the Buckeyes boast a lot of talent on defense, linebacker Ryan Shazier is probably Ohio State's most important player on that side of the ball.
The preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, he's been all over the field this season. Heading into this weekend's contest, he leads Ohio State in both tackles and tackles for loss.
Last season, he picked off a Matthew McGloin pass deep in Penn State territory and returned it for a touchdown. That play broke a 7-7 tie, and the Buckeyes went on to win 35-23 in Happy Valley.
During his press conference on Tuesday, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien had high praise for Shazier. He said his team needs to keep tabs on him when he is on the field.
"He's a very athletic guy, very instinctive guy. A guy that can slip blocks very easily. You'd better know where he is in the passing game, whether he's blitzing or in coverage. Just a really athletic, good instinctive player."
On passing downs, it will be important for Hackenberg to identify where Shazier is on the field. While this doesn't mean he should avoid throwing to that side, it's good to be cognizant of the linebacker's whereabouts. Since the rest of Ohio State's linebackers aren't great in pass coverage, it's better to attack the Buckeyes' weakness.
Knowing where one of the better defenders on the field is lined up is a good start.
While Ohio State's pass defense isn't that impressive, its ability to stop the run is. And along with that comes a consistent and relentless pass rush.
Ranked seventh in the country against the run, the Buckeyes have also racked up 16 sacks so far this year. Even though Penn State's offensive line has played well this year, it'll have its hands full with guys like Noah Spence and Michael Bennett playing across the line of scrimmage. Couple in the fact that Ohio State is up against a freshman quarterback, and there's sure to be an extra pep in the step of the pass-rushers.
As Dan Gelston of the Associated Press explained, Ohio State's defensive line knows it has an opportunity to rattle Hackenberg:
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.”
Knowing that Ohio State wants to get to him early and often, Hackenberg needs to stay poised and not make quick, rash decisions. If he can step up in the pocket to bide himself some time, he'll have the ability to extend some plays and exploit some holes in the Buckeyes defense.
As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, the key to Penn State's passing game against Ohio State will be exposing the middle of the Buckeyes defense.
Ohio State's pass defense only ranks 80th nationally, and a big reason for that is because the linebacking play—outside of Ryan Shazier—is subpar. The pass defense has been a weak link. In 12 games last year, the Buckeyes gave up only 15 passing touchdowns. Through only seven games this season, they have surrendered 13.
In an interview with Black Shoe Diaries, Michael Citro of Eleven Warriors pointed out just how susceptible the Ohio State defense is to letting opponents move the ball through the air:
Ohio State has played a lot of very soft underneath coverage this season for whatever reason and teams are taking those chunks.
The pass coverage by the linebackers and safeties has been the biggest issue, in my opinion. And Ohio State has been playing with the lead most of the season, which lends itself to giving up more passing yards.
Bill O'Brien should put his freshman quarterback in a position to attack the middle of the field using his tight ends.
Last weekend, Iowa exposed that matchup weakness, as the tight ends had 11 catches for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Buckeyes. With Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, Hackenberg should have plenty of big targets to hit for decent yardage.
If he can find success in the short passing game, it will limit Ohio State's opportunities of forcing the Nittany Lions into 3rd-and-long situations.
In a raucous environment like Ohio Stadium, it's easy for an 18-year-old kid to get apprehensive and let that affect his play.
Luckily for Penn State, Hackenberg's age appears to be merely a number at this point. His leadership skills have developed over the course of the season, as ESPN's Josh Moyer detailed:
Ask Hackenberg's teammates about his evolution, and a theme will clearly emerge. His offensive linemen, Ty Howle and Adam Gress, used the term "confident" repeatedly, more often than they used the term "freshman." Hackenberg's leadership is even apparent on the other side of the ball.
"He's starting to help other guys come along and become a leader," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He was getting fired up on the sideline and getting guys going. That was comforting to see from a quarterback, especially a young quarterback."
We saw it two weeks ago against Michigan, when Penn State was down a touchdown with 50 seconds left and no timeouts. Most freshmen would crumble under that kind of pressure. Hackenberg, however, confidently led the team down the field for a touchdown, making several tough throws along the way.
If a young guy like him can be vocal in the huddle and on the sidelines and exude leadership and confidence, it will go a long way in helping the rest of the team relax a little.