Hackenberg finally shows growing pains

UNIVERSITY PARK – Through the first 16 games of his Nittany Lion tenure, one of the things we’ve learned about Bill O’Brien is that he’s not afraid to speak his mind.

He reinforced that when he tried to steer the postgame questioning away from the offense following Saturday’s 34-0 victory over Kent State at Beaver Stadium.

“You guys need to ask me some defensive questions,” he said in mild but mostly serious protest. “They’re all offensive questions. The defense just pitched a shutout you guys were all over them last week.”

O’Brien’s tactic worked temporarily until the inquiry flow swung back to a unit – the passing offense – that didn’t match the precision it showed through three games.

Entering the game with a sparkling completion ratio of 71 percent, Christian Hackenberg completed 13-for-35 for a season-low 176 yards and “probably was a little frustrated,” O’Brien said.

Whether it was the wet ball – the game was played in a steady rain – or a couple of dropped passes or some decent coverage by Kent State, Hackenberg finally showed some growing pains.

And for the first time this year, he couldn’t count on Allen Robinson to shred the defense as Robinson, despite repeated attempts on fade patterns in the end zone, was limited to a season-low three catches.

Neither Hackenberg nor Robinson was made available to the media so it was pretty clear this was a performance they’d rather not talk about.

O’Brien, though, wasn’t overreacting.

“I think he [Hackenberg] had some good throws and probably some he wants back,” he said. “That’s the mark of a fantastic player, and that’s what he is. He’ll get better and you’ll see improvement. Just like I’d like a few play calls back, he probably wants a few throws back.”

The spotty success in the passing game forced the Lions to focus on the ground, and they rumbled through Kent State, pounding away for 5.4 yards per clip (on 53 carries), and relied on a defense that acquitted itself nicely after last week’s collapse against Central Florida.

“We’ve got to be able to make the catches when we need to, even though it was raining,” tight end Kyle Carter said. “[But] with the passing game not going that well, we were definitely running it great.”

Carter’s return from an elbow injury produced one catch while fellow tight ends Jesse James and Adam Breneman combined for four more.

Hackenberg was just 2-of-14 with an interception in the second half, and it seemed O’Brien, knowing the Lions could run all day, kept trying to get his QB in rhythm.

“He’s a tremendous young quarterback with a great future,” he said. “It wasn’t about building his confidence.”

Now 3-1, the Lions head into the bye week – “I think it comes at the right time,” O’Brien said – having shown some positives in all aspects and some areas that can be improved upon.

Central Florida exposed weaknesses in the Lions’ secondary, but they were shored up Saturday, albeit against a now 1-3 opponent whose administration saw fit to schedule trips to LSU and Penn State on consecutive weekends.

O’Brien said the week off will give the staff a chance to “self-scout,” before it opens Big Ten play at Indiana, which entered Saturday leading the league in offense.

One area O’Brien will no doubt be focusing on is the Lions’ penchant for slow starts. Though they’re averaging 33 points per game, they’ve only scored 47 points in the first half (11.7 per game) and just 21 in the first quarter (5.2 per game).

That can be partially attributed to a freshman quarterback, no matter how decorated, adjusting to a new level of football. We saw that for the first time Saturday and are likely to see it again in 2013.

Which may sometimes leave the praise – and the questions, as Bill O’Brien suggested – for the defense.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or You can also follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.