After a sophomore season that saw him regress in nearly every major statistical category we use to measure quarterbacking, it’s easy to criticize Penn State Nittany Lions sophomore Christian Hackenberg.
After a stellar freshman campaign that salvaged a solid freshman season from the doom and gloom that shrouded Penn State’s football program, Hackenberg took 92 more pass attempts to throw for 22 more yards in 2014. His completion percentage dipped (58.9% to 55.4%), his QB rating plummeted (134.0 to 109.4) and he was woefully inefficient, picking up 18% fewer yards per attempt in 2014 than he did the previous year.
There were more interceptions and fewer touchdowns, and after starting a second paragraph to further explain Christian Hackenberg’s statistical implosion in 2014, the reality is that we could probably pepper you with numbers all day and they’d all lead you to the conclusion that Hackenberg simply wasn’t great in 2014.
A lot of quarterbacks weren’t, mind you. However, with such lofty expectations after everything that went into his recruitment and a Freshman All-American campaign in 2013, less than great was probably never going to cut it.
Yet, even as all those numbers seem to paint Hackenberg’s inadequacies, the vocal majority of people in the football facilities at Penn State seem steadfastly committed to him. Just as Hackenberg remained loyally committed during the most tumultuous time the program has ever known.
Turn it to nearly any talk radio station in Central Pennsylvania during the eight-game stretch to finish the regular season when the Nittany Lions went just 2-6, and they might have been singing a different tune. Rumors swirled about locker room tension, and Hackenberg’s own father seemed relatively non-committal about the possibility that Hackenberg may transfer at season’s end.
Yet, after an overtime win in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College and a 371-yard, four-touchdown and no-interception performance, confidence seems renewed. And it should be.
Because any data indicating that Penn State’s offensive woes were the byproduct of poor play at quarterback isn’t complete. If anything, it was the struggles of the unit as a whole that made Hackenberg look bad.
Hampered by scholarship restrictions and gashed by graduation, Penn State fielded what many considered to be the thinnest group of offensive linemen in the Big Ten in 2014. It also lost two-time all-conference wide receiver Allen Robinson to the NFL.
With no protection, no running game and the lack of a dynamic go-to option at wide receiver, Christian Hackenberg probably never had a chance at being truly successful this fall. Instead, he took an unrelenting beating.
The Nittany Lions ran the ball for just 2.9 yards per carry. They gave up the third-most sacks (44) in the FBS, and Hackenberg was on the receiving end of every miscue.
Like any competitor should, Hackenberg grew frustrated with the situation. After a lean week-two win over lowly Akron, a Vine went viral where he appeared to say “I don’t know what the f*** we’re doing.” He was on the phone with the booth, and the context is relatively uncertain, but that didn’t stop the barrage.
It was as if six seconds of video on a loop were an admission of guilt.
Yet, throughout the course of the season, it didn’t look like anyone on Penn State’s offense knew what the f*** it was doing. They were 113th in the nation in scoring offense, and if you were to pour over cfbstats.com’s offerings on how Penn State performed statistically in every other offensive category of note, you’d save a great deal of time by starting at the bottom and working your way up.
But, after all that, there was no shortage of people in Penn State’s locker room willing to offer the 20-year old their vote of confidence.
Perhaps that was just an exercise in teamspeak. Maybe teammates and the coaching staff voiced their support of Christian Hackenberg in lieu of better options.
Or maybe, in a season where Penn State never really found its identity offensively after losing a lot, folks realized the position Hackenberg was put in from the beginning. Even when he appeared frustrated on the field, the sophomore quarterback elegantly shouldered the burden after the game.
Christian Hackenberg earned a lot of respect in 2014 for that reason. I guess that’s called a sophomore slump.