Saturday afternoon, Penn State achieved a significant milestone given the program’s troubled recent history. The Nittany Lions’ 30-13 rout of Temple secured Penn State’s first bowl bid since the 2011 season, when they dropped a 30-14 decision to Houston in Dallas’ TicketCity Bowl.
But they did it with little help from one of their most important players, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. And if the Lions hope to end the season with their first bowl victory since a 19-17 win over LSU in the 2010 Capital One Bowl, they’ll need a stronger all-around effort, most notably from Hackenberg.
Following a strong freshman season that saw him throw for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, the Nittany Lions’ sophomore quarterback has taken a major step backward in 2014.
Saturday, Hackenberg had his worst statistical game of the season, completing 12 of 26 passes for 112 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. On the season, he has thrown just seven touchdowns against 14 interceptions.
It was his worst passing-yardage game of the season and tied his season low for completions (set earlier in the season against Massachusetts and replicated last week against Indiana). After throwing for 454, 319 and 309 yards in the Lions’ first three games this season, Hackenberg hasn’t cracked the 225-yard barrier since, throwing for less than 200 yards five times in seven contests.
An inexperienced, leaky offensive line is partially to blame—Hackenberg has been sacked 39 times this season after being sacked just 21 times in 12 games last year—but he also must make better decisions, as his increased interception total suggests.
Penn State’s ground game gave Hackenberg help Saturday, as Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton combined for 222 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries.
The Lions defense was impressive, too, highlighted by Grant Haley’s pick-six interception return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
And senior kicker Sam Ficken has been strong all season, making 22 of 26 field-goal attempts. His final-play field goal won the season opener against Central Florida, and he has 87 points on the season, or 40.8 percent of the Lions' total points.
The Lions just need Hackenberg to be better and display the strong arm and confidence that he flashed in abundance last season. The NCAA’s decision to rescind the final two seasons of the postseason ban imposed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal restored some hope and excitement to Happy Valley.
Now that bowl eligibility is a reality, Penn State can focus on finishing the season strong. With hapless Illinois next on the schedule, a mid-range bowl bid is possible. To make the most of it, Hackenberg must find a way to improve quickly.