STATE COLLEGE — Playing in an NFL stadium last week — the site of the Super Bowl, no less — that didn’t particularly faze Christian Hackenberg.
But lining up under center for the first time at Beaver Stadium? Yeah, that hit him. Hard.
Hackenberg looked every bit the part of a jittery 18-year-old in the first quarter Saturday. Overthrown passes that sailed too hard and too high. An inexplicable fumble that handed away seven points. A rotten opening for a quarterback of any age.
No matter. A few hours later, that start was buried along with Eastern Michigan.
Hackenberg settled down and became the first Penn State freshman to throw for 300 yards in a game as the Nittany Lions dusted off the overmatched Eagles 45-7.
John Butler’s defense didn’t allow a point and held Eastern to just 55 yards after halftime while the offense ran off 45 unanswered points to improve to 2-0. Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each finished with 108 yards on the ground and teamed with Zach Zwinak to score five rushing touchdowns.
With so many people lauding Hackenberg’s poise in the past month, it’s easy to forget that he can get wound up like anyone else.
“This is a calm kid, but he was jacked up,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “I was reminded by one of the assistant coaches, again, this is his first game in Beaver Stadium. You can take 5,000 recruiting trips here, but it isn’t like playing here.”
“Way different,” Hackenberg said with a smirk.
Easier to laugh about it after a game like this. Hackenberg finished 23-of-33 for 311 yards and a touchdown to help offset a pair of early turnovers. The old rookie passing record was 280 yards, which Zack Mills hit twice in 2001 as a redshirt freshman.
Hackenberg admitted he was “a little shocked” at how much the gravity of his first home opener affected him. It was never more apparent than on his third drive of the game when the ball simply slipped out of his hand without being hit. The unforced turnover was an easy scoop-and-score for Eastern and a surprising 7-0 lead.
O’Brien, who said little on the sideline to his quarterback immediately after his two interceptions last week, sensed that he needed to step in for a chat this time.
“He just told me to calm down,” Hackenberg said. “It’s just, ‘Next play.’ That’s how I approached it, and offensively as a whole, that’s how we approached it. And we had a couple very good drives after that.”
“This was his first game,” O’Brien said. “He was amped up. I thought he, obviously, settled down pretty well. I think it’s pretty easy to see he’s a hard working kid. He has talent.”
It showed when he answered the fumble with a 43-yard strike to Allen Robinson to set up the Lions’ first score. Other than a second-quarter interception that the Eagles (1-1) ripped away from Brandon Felder, Hackenberg and a much-improved running game took care of business.
For all of Hackenberg’s early nerves, it didn’t show in the huddle.
“I’ll tell you something about Christian — he’s really not a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve,” senior center Ty Howle said. “He keeps them back, and that’s what good quarterbacks do.
“He’s very confident, he’s poised and he played well.”
The bomb to Robinson seemed to get the entire offense into rhythm as both Zwinak and Belton found the end zone before halftime as the Lions took a 17-7 lead into the break.
Zwinak scored again in the third and the offense really tore into a tiring Eagles’ defense in the fourth. Hackenberg stepped up and hit Robinson for a 45-yard score and Belton went 51 yards to paydirt on the next drive.
Lynch closed out the day with an 18-yard touchdown as he and Tyler Ferguson led the second-team offense into the end zone.
Led by Glenn Carson and DaQuan Jones, the Lions defense smothered the Eagles, never letting them climb back into the game.
“It’s still a work in progress,” said O’Brien, who reversed last season’s 0-2 start. “We have to execute better, especially at the beginning of the game.
“But it’s a lot of fun to coach this group. It’s a resilient football team. … We told them that we won the day today, we have to try to win the day tomorrow. Just try to get better every single day.”