Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg has shown uncommon poise for a true freshman and has been practically rattle-proof through the first half of the season.
He’s been named the Big Ten freshman of the week three times, leads the conference in passing yards per game (278.7) and directed the Nittany Lions to a four-overtime home win against Michigan in their last outing.
But he’ll face his biggest challenge yet at fourth-ranked Ohio State in prime time Saturday on national TV. And while coach Bill O’Brien would like to think the former five-star recruit is battle-tested enough, he can’t know for sure how Hackenberg will react on such a big stage until the Buckeyes put him under duress.
“What are you going to do? You can’t put 90,000 people around your practice field cheering against you,” O’Brien said on the Big Ten teleconference Tuesday. “It comes down to his preparation, his focus, his demeanor. I think to this point, he’s handled himself well.
“It’s not easy to play in front of the HOME crowd — 108,000 here at Penn State — as an 18-year-old freshman. I think it comes down to being focused and knowing the game plan and knowing how we want to play against Ohio State.”
O’Brien has earned kudos for what he’s done while leading the Nittany Lions to surprising success in his two years after being hit with unprecedented NCAA sanctions: a 60-scholarship reduction over four seasons and a bowl ban each of those years.
But the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator is reluctant to accept praise. Yes, his teams may have exceeded expectations, but he pointed out he still hasn’t gotten the program back to Penn State standards.
“We were an 8-4 football team last year, which is decent for a first year with probably some of the factors we went through. But it wasn’t like we were 12-0. This year, we are 4-2. Again, it’s not like we’re 6-0,” he said.
“The successful part of it is really due to the players. We have a resilient bunch of guys here that really just care about each other and don’t worry about what people outside say. They lift hard, go to classes and do what they’re supposed to do. And they play hard on Saturdays.”
Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, a former star linebacker for the Patriots while O’Brien was there, thinks the Nittany Lions have the right man to lead them back to their glory days.
“Bill O’Brien is a good friend. He’s a good football coach. He’s going to do everything he can to keep that program where it’s been for the last 50 or 60 years. I don’t see that changing,” Vrabel said.
The NCAA has reduced the Nittany Lions’ sanctions. Instead of being limited to 15 scholarships per year for four years, they can hand out 20 full rides in 2014 and the full 25 after that.
The bowl ban is still in place, but the NCAA said it will consider lifting that as long as the school stays on course with the changes being made since the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
But O’Brien said: “With no offense to the bowl system, if you’re not in a BCS bowl or not playing for a national championship — for instance, we’re playing Ohio State with 100,000 people in the stands in the Horseshoe. I don’t know too many bowl games that are better than that, other than the national championship game.
“I don’t get into too much of (the postseason). I talk to our guys about playing 12 one-game seasons. Our guys are pretty motivated.”
More like it: OSU coach Urban Meyer said quarterback Braxton Miller probably had his best game as a Buckeye against Iowa, completing a career-high 22 passes in 27 attempts for 222 yards and two TDs. He also rushed for 102 yards on 18 attempts.
Not bad for a guy who was almost yanked during a three-turnover game against Northwestern.
“The reason he stayed in — people use the term loyalty. It wasn’t loyalty. I had to find out the best opportunity for the Scarlet and Gray to win that game. And it was Braxton Miller at quarterback,” Meyer said.
“Not that I don’t have confidence in (backup Kenny Guiton). But I saw what I saw in Braxton’s eyes, and I know his ability level.”
Ground game: The Buckeyes have 1,957 rushing yards, their most through seven games in 36 years. The 1977 team racked up 2,269 and finished with 3,694, the third most in school history. The OSU record is 4,199 in 1974.
Penn State (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) at Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), 8 p.m., ABC, 1410