Four thousand miles from home, under intense pressure, Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg showed why he should be considered one of college football’s elite young quarterbacks.
Few will forget head coach James Franklin’s Penn State debut, a heart-stopping 26-24 come-from-behind win over Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland. Hackenberg made sure Nittany Lion fans will remember it with pride.
The sophomore signal-caller set a PSU single-game passing record with 454 yards through the air, becoming the first Nittany Lion quarterback ever to throw for over 400 yards. And none were more important than the 47 he piled up on the Nittany Lions’ final drive.
Hackenberg and the Penn State offense got the ball back at their own 26 with 1:13 left in the game, trailing Central Florida 24-23.
Golden Knights quarterback Justin Holman had just given UCF the lead with a scintillating eight-play, 75-yard drive, keyed by a 37-yard strike to Josh Reese on 4th-and-10 from the PSU 43 that set up Holman’s go-ahead touchdown run.
How would Hackenberg and Co. respond on an international stage, with the college football world watching before the day’s slate began stateside?
No pressure. No matter.
Facing a 4th-and-3 at his own 33, Hackenberg scrambled eight yards for a first down. Consecutive completions moved the ball to the UCF 37 with 17 seconds left. Following a timeout, Hackenberg tossed an 18-yard strike to Geno Lewis to the Golden Knights’ 19, allowing Sam Ficken to calmly boot a 36-yard game-winning field goal on the final play.
Hackenberg completed 32 of 47 passes on the day. While he wasn’t perfect (he had two interceptions and one touchdown), he showed grit and moxie while putting up his first career 400-yard passing game (he had four 300-yard games as a freshman).
This fall, Hackenberg has been widely expected to build on a great freshman year (2,955 yards passing with 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions).
At 6'4", 234 pounds, he has excellent size and arm strength, and in Franklin's offense, he could also become a more mobile quarterback (although he had just two yards on five carries Saturday). With Ohio State's Braxton Miller sidelined by shoulder surgery, Hackenberg could become the Big Ten's top quarterback this fall.
If Saturday is any indication, he could be in for a special season in Happy Valley.