Rudel: Lions overcome their own adversity

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – On one hand, Bill O’Brien knew he shouldn’t have called for a pass with the Nittany Lions up two scores and on the verge of clinching Saturday’s season opener against Syracuse.

On the other hand, because Penn State is operating with about 20 fewer scholarships than everybody on its schedule, O’Brien figures he doesn’t have the luxury to play cautiously.

“We can’t dip our toe into the water,” he said after the Lions held off Syracuse, 23-17, at MetLife Stadium.

O’Brien made the game closer than it needed to be when he called for freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to attempt a pass on a third-and-11 from Penn State’s 30, up 23-10, midway through the fourth quarter.

The pass was intercepted and converted into a touchdown, and the two-score lead turned into the Nittany Lions’ defense having to withstand a late Syracuse rush.

“Hindsight being 20-20, I put him [Hackenberg] in a bad situation,” O’Brien said. “I’ve got to coach that better.”

The sequence, though, gave Penn State one more opportunity to overcome all the adversity it faced – some of which, like the above, was self-created.

Consider everything the Lions overcame Saturday:

n They really couldn’t establish the run and wound up gaining just 57 yards on 38 carries for a 1.5 per-carry average.

n They turned the ball over four times, giving its defense short fields and keeping the Orangemen in the game.

n They were without top receiver Allen Robinson (discipline) for the first half and lost linebacker Mike Hull and tight ends Matt Lehman and Kyle Carter to injuries for much of the game and, in Lehman’s case, an extended period.

Add it all up, and the Lions were thrilled to leave here 1-0.

“We didn’t put our heads down,” safety Adrian Amos said. “The offense needed a little help, and we picked them up.”

O’Brien, because he’s not only the head coach but the playcaller, paid particular tribute to the defense.

“Our defense came through – big,” he said. “That’s Penn State defense.”

Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and tackle DaQuan Jones were outstanding, and the Lions’ young cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams, both making their first starts, held up nicely in one-on-one coverage.

The lack of a ground game forced Hackenberg to make plays, and other than the late interception, he lived up to his billing by throwing for 278 yards while completing 22-of-31.

“We have to learn how to deal with the pressure they put on [our] offense, and we will,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got to run the football when we’re supposed to.”

Unable to convert on third-downs via the run – “everybody in the stadium knew we were going to run,” O’Brien said – the Lions called upon Hackenberg perhaps more than they intended, but he got steadily better as the game went on.

Along with his rifle arm, he showed poise and toughness in the pocket, good feet and an impressive overall presence.

Once Robinson surfaced, the Lions had their north-south threat, and Hackenberg quickly found him deep for his first of two touchdowns (or just 44 shy of Matt McGloin’s career record) en route to 209 passing yards in the second half.

And unlike last year, placekicker Sam Ficken started the season on the right foot by nailing all three of his field-goal attempts, including a career-long 46 yarder.

Overall, it was an encouraging opener against a team that played hard, showed flashes and should be competitive in the ACC.

And it provided an early glimpse of a Penn State team that, in year two of the NCAA sanctions, still has enough talent to play with the majority of its schedule and a strong enough resolve to hang in there when it’s getting more than its toes wet.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or