A Ryan Keiser interception gifted the Penn State offense favorable field position and another chance to increase its 14-point lead over Kent State midway through the third quarter.
After calling a pass play 21 times in the first half, coach Bill O’Brien continued his pass-first play-calling tendencies and drew up three straight aerial attempts from Christian Hackenberg — each of which fell incomplete, leading to a 26-second, three-and-out drive.
Penn State executed a total of five pass plays over the next 20-plus minutes of game time, as O’Brien allowed the three-headed running attack to take over for the Nittany Lions in their 34-0 handling of the Golden Flashes on Saturday.
Although it was a soggy day for a passing game to take off, Hackenberg was consistently off the mark on his 13-of-35 day, eroding what had been a 71 percent completion percentage heading into the game. The heavy emphasis on the running game may be a sign of things to come for the Lions as they embark on Big Ten play, when Hackenberg will start facing some of the better pass defenses in the country.
With an 18-year-old quarterback and a so-far dominating rushing attack — which is averaging 197 yards per game against its up-and-down nonconference schedule — even the aerial-inclined O’Brien may be tempted to continue feeding opponents a heavy dose of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch.
O’Brien was asked after the game whether the initially pass-heavy play-calling against the Flashes was an attempt to increase Hackenberg’s confidence. The second-year coach dismissed the idea, saying he has already seen enough from the true freshman to believe in him.
“It was more just the play calls. Again, I wish I had a couple play calls back,” O’Brien said. “There was one series where I threw the ball three plays in a row and I should have been booed on that. I have to call better plays there. I have complete confidence in Christian. He’s a tremendous young quarterback and he’s got a great future.”
However, whether Hackenberg yet has the tools to have a great present this season, especially against stiffer competition, is still up for debate.
Penn State’s quarterback handed the ball off 27 times of the 37 plays after Hackenberg’s third quarter interception when he tried to force the ball to Allen Robinson, who was mostly shut down by the Flashes’ defense.
Of course, sloppy field conditions and the Lions’ big lead backed up the decision to run the ball so frequently toward the end of the game.
But, when Hackenberg did get chances to throw at key points in drives — such as the three-and-out series immediately following Keiser’s interception — he frequently appeared out of sync with his receivers. His 37 percent completion percentage against the 81st-best pass defense in the country would equate to an even less efficient outing against a Wisconsin or Ohio State.
Guard Miles Dieffenbach pointed out the benefit in Hackenberg having a down game in a win like Saturday’s, as he’ll likely need to play through that type of adversity against tougher defenses in conference play.
And O’Brien certainly wasn’t ready to heavily scrutinize the play of his quarterback — who has already won Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice — saying he expects the freshman quarterback to use the underwhelming performance to his advantage moving forward.
“I think he had some throws that I think he’d want back, but he’ll get better from this,” O’Brien said. “He’ll watch the tape. I think he’s probably a little bit frustrated tonight. But, that’s okay. That’s the mark of a fantastic player, and that’s what he is.”
However, the likelihood of the Lions’ offense benefiting from a 35-pass outing from Hackenberg once Big Ten play heats up after the bye week remains a question mark.
John Stuetz can be reached at email@example.com or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnStuetz_PSU.