Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg had a pretty average game, statistically, in the win over Illinois. At this point, seeing the freshman throw for 240 yards and one touchdown has become common for Nittany Lions fans.
So has watching his clutch performances in crunch time:
Penn State needed to bounce back following the 63-14 loss last week in Columbus, and Illinois looked like the perfect opponent for redemption. Ranking 93rd in rushing yards and 103rd in points allowed, Illinois arrived in Happy Valley on a three-game losing streak that has seen them allow at least 34 points in each game.
However, Illinois had other plans.
The Nittany Lions defense gave up over 300 yards passing, and the offense looked extremely stagnant in the second half, scoring no points until a field goal in the last minute of the fourth quarter.
Then came overtime, and the tale of two quarterbacks.
Hackenberg, the Big Ten's leading passer, struggled with his accuracy all day. He'd thrown several passes in the dirt and had just missed Brandon Felder on consecutive plays near the end of regulation.
Bill O'Brien looked as though he had lost some confidence in the freshman and was leaning primarily on new starting running back Bill Belton, who set career highs on carries (36) and yards (201).
O'Brien looked comfortable sticking with that strategy in overtime until a holding penalty put his Nittany Lions in a 3rd-and-11 situation.
The second-year head coach dialed up a play action pass and Hackenberg showed the poise that made him famous against Michigan by throwing a rope over the middle into a window that found tight end Kyle Carter in the end zone.
PSU another OT home win. Hackenberg continues to make some big plays in the clutch. #impressive— Nick Handley (@NickESPN590) November 2, 2013
On the very next play, Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for 322 yards and a touchdown on the afternoon, took a shot at the end zone that was intercepted by Ryan Keiser to end the game.
It seems like every game, Hackenberg has some issues with his accuracy or with locking onto his receivers. You know, "freshman" things. It also seems like when he gets pushed into a corner and his instincts take over, the freshman has the goods and the mentality to come through in a big way.
As he figures the rest of it out, that "it" factor is going to be beneficial to both Hackenberg and his Nittany Lions.
When a team knows that they have a guy like that in the huddle who is always going to give them a chance to win, it can elevate the play of the entire team. Hackenberg has earned that respect all year with big-time throws and his cool demeanor. The upcoming schedule against Minnesota and Purdue should provide "Hack" the opportunity to play in some more close games.
If that's the case, the smart money should be on No. 14 when things get tight.