Hack’s record day shows his value

DUBLIN – One of the best compliments any athlete in any sport can receive is that he always gives his team a chance to win.

It’s easy to say that about a star player on a good team, one who has talent around him at every position. It’s different, though, when very little is working around the star player and he has to do most of the heavy lifting.

Christian Hackenberg didn’t beat Central Florida by himself Saturday afternoon. That’s a vastly overused sports cliche that, frankly, is disrespectful to the efforts of other players on the team.

But there is a reality that shone forth in the Croke Park Classic. The reality is that, without its star quarterback turning in a brilliant, record-setting performance, Penn State wouldn’t have stood much of a chance.

Hackenberg threw for a school-record 454 yards on a day when the Nittany Lions’ rushing game was non-existent (28 carries for 57 yards). He helped make a redshirt freshman receiver (DaeSean Hamilton) look like a superstar, and did the same for a mostly unproven sophomore receiver (Geno Lewis).

Hackenberg did all that while having to buy time on many of his throws. He avoided pressure by scrambling and throwing on the run to compensate for an inexperienced offensive line that, while playing decent, still looks to be a big question mark.

But have no fear, PSU fans. With Hack back to pass, the Nittany Lions will always be capable of doing special things on offense.

“I love that guy, man,” Lewis said.

He has every reason to love Hackenberg after catching eight passes for 173 yards. Last season, Lewis had only 18 catches for 234 yards, but he stands to have a much bigger year as one of Hackenberg’s favorite targets.

“I think he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Lewis said.

Who, after watching Hackenberg last year and on Saturday, would be willing to challenge that assessment?

Sure, Florida State’s Jameis Winston won the Heisman a year ago. But give Hack the kind of talent that Winston has around him with the Seminoles, and it’s scary to think of the numbers he could put up.

“We’ve got a special guy playing quarterback,” coach James Franklin said.

Offensive lineman Andrew Nelson explained how special.

“There’s definitely times when you think you’re in a real tough situation, and then Christian pulls it out and you’re like, ‘Wow, thank goodness,'” Nelson said.

One of those times came in the final minute Saturday.

Central Florida had just taken a 24-23 lead, a shocking development because Penn State had controlled the game to that point. But Hackenberg has ice water in his veins, which he displayed last year as a true freshman and had an opportunity to do so again in the season opener.

Instead of being nervous, Hackenberg said he was excited to be on the field in that do-or-die situation. Then, as good of a day as he had passing, he made one of his biggest plays with his legs.

Facing a fourth-and-3 from his own 33, Hackenberg felt the pocket collapse and took off up the middle with the game on the line.

“I knew it was fourth down,” he said. “If I was going to go, I had to go and I hit it. I tried to get as much as I could.”

He gained 8 yards to keep hope alive, then on the next play he improvised with a shovel pass to Bill Belton that went for 13 yards.

At that point, it seemed obvious that Penn State would win. And after back-to-back passes to Lewis picked up 27 yards, the Lions did indeed win on Sam Ficken’s field goal as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“That’s a testament that goes back to our practice field,” Hackenberg said of the game-winning drive. “We were a team that struggled with the two-minute (offense) when we first put it in in the spring. Then I felt like as camp went on, the team really started to buy into it.”

Why wouldn’t a team buy into anything on offense when Hackenberg is running it?

“We’re going to have some fun these next two-three years,” said Hamilton, who broke PSU freshman records with 11 catches for 165 yards.

Fun indeed, for as good as Hackenberg already is, he does have room for improvement. He threw two interceptions Saturday, and both were poor decisions as he tried to force passes rather than realizing there was nothing there and throwing it away.

As he makes those adjustments, and as the offensive line and young receivers continue to improve, Hackenberg should keep making strides toward realizing his full potential.

Can you imagine how good he will be once he does that?

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.