EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Christian Hackenberg threw two touchdown passes in his first college game and the freshman led Penn State to 23-17 victory against Syracuse on Saturday.
Hackenberg went 22 for 31 for 278 yards with two interceptions and became the second freshman to start a Penn State opener at quarterback since 1910.
The 18-year-old blue chip recruit hit Eugene Lewis with a deep pass down the middle and the receiver reached into the end zone for a 54-yard score that made it 23-10 with 11:39 left in the fourth quarter. Hackenberg also hooked up with Allen Robinson on a 51-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Robinson, Penn State’s leading receiver last season, unexpectedly did not play in the first half, but finished with seven catches for 133 yards.
Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen got the start at quarterback for new Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, and finished 16 for 37 for 189 yards.
Hackenberg was far from perfect, holding the ball too long a few times. His costliest mistake came in Penn State territory in the fourth quarter when he threw an interception to defensive lineman Robert Welsh, who returned the ball to the 1. On the next play, Jerome Smith plunged into the end zone to make it 23-17 with 6:58 left in the fourth.
Syracuse’s last shot ended when Allen went deep down the sideline, but was picked off by Trevor Williams at the Penn State 25 with 1:53 left and not timeouts left for the Orange.
Neither team revealed its starting quarterback until the offenses took the field, and in both cases the fans’ choice prevailed.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien went with the highly touted Hackenberg over junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson for all but one series. Shafer chose Allen over sophomore Terrell Hunt.
Robinson was unexpectedly on the bench for the first half and there was no official word why. When he finally got on the field, Hackenberg kept him busy. He caught the freshman’s first two passes of the second half, including the long touchdown that made it 13-3 Penn State.
Sam Ficken, who struggled at the beginning of last season for Penn State, kicked three field goals, including a career-best 46-yarder early in the fourth quarter that made it 16-10.
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong’s interception in Syracuse territory led to Ficken’s long field goal. The senior defensive back from the nearby Bronx also had a strip and fumble recovery in the first half that led to Ficken’s first field goal.
Allen responded after Penn State’s first touchdown with a perfectly thrown deep ball to Jeremiah Kobena that went for 55 yards. On the next play, Smith bounced outside and ran for a 10-yard score to make it 13-10. The crowd of 61,202 at MetLife Stadium, a fairly even mix of Penn State and Syracuse fans for what was officially an Orange home game, finally had a reason to make some noise after a sleepy first half.
Preseason camp news for both teams was dominated by the same topic: Who would start at quarterback?
Both coaches played it coy and ultimately decided to reveal the starter during Game 1.
For Penn State, the competition was between a couple of newcomers to major college football.
Hackenburg’s arrival to Happy Valley was considered one of the biggest victories of O’Brien’s short tenure at Penn State. He committed before Penn State was slammed by NCAA sanctions due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Nittany Lions fans worried Hackenberg might bail, but he stuck it out and the future is now from the freshman.
The competition at Syracuse was between Allen and sophomore Terrell Hunt. Hunt got a head start in the spring, but Allen picked up things fast enough in August to win the job.
Check out the highlights from the game, courtesy of The ACC Digital Network: