Hackenberg holds key to Ohio State-Penn State game
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) A year after the worst beating in Penn State's highlight-filled history, the Nittany Lions know they need to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg if they want to avoid another lopsided loss to Ohio State.
''Overall they are a very fast, athletic defense,'' Hackenberg said Wednesday. ''We just have to continue to execute and stay on track and limit the negative plays and try to continue to keep the sticks moving throughout the game.''
They certainly did not do any of that a year ago.
The Buckeyes sacked him four times and intercepting him twice in a stunningly one-sided 63-14 victory over the then-freshman. It was a seismic defeat for Penn State - the most points surrendered and the biggest loss in the program's 114 years.
Having followed that script once, they hope to harass Hackenberg again under the lights at Beaver Stadium.
''That's going to be a big priority,'' Buckeyes linebacker Joshua Perry said. ''We saw how that worked out last year. We got after him a little bit and we had some success there, so we'll see what we can do against them. I know our D-line's pretty hungry, so we'll get after it.''
The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) must rely on an offensive line that includes one junior scholarship player (not counting injured senior Miles Dieffenbach) and one freshman. That's it.
''Consistently being able to protect (Hackenberg) starts up front,'' first-year coach James Franklin said. ''As our offensive line continues to grow and play better, then our quarterback will be protected and we'll throw the ball better, and then our running game will be more effective. All of those things are based on consistency.''
Hackenberg's numbers are impressive, but not overwhelming. He's completed 134 of 227 passes for 1,637 yards but only has five touchdown passes against seven interceptions.
''We've got a lot of respect for that big quarterback,'' Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. ''Tremendous player. Statistically came out of the chute with a high completion percentage. He's struggled a little bit. But he's playing very well.''
Meanwhile, Ohio State's defense has been playing exceedingly well after allowing several long TD passes in the first few games. Over the Buckeyes' four-game winning streak, the defense is allowing 17 points while creating 10 turnovers (eight of them interceptions).
On top of everything else, the 13th-ranked Buckeyes (5-1, 2-0) might benefit from some insider knowledge. Larry Johnson spent 18 years as a defensive assistant at Penn State, then switched to Ohio State during the offseason. He'll be making his first trip back to his old haunts.
''It will be different,'' he said. ''You spend 18 years at one place for a long time, then you walk back in there, a different sideline, the place you've been for 18 years. But I'm looking forward to going back.''
Before last year's game got out of hand, Penn State's hopes faded early after a mistake by the offense. Hackenberg's pass to tight end Adam Brenneman at the goal line was picked off by safety Corey Brown and the Buckeyes scored on their next five possessions. Game, set, match.
Penn State has lost its last two games after a 4-0 start and is returning from a bye week.
Hackenberg knows what's riding on him on a white-out night before a partisan crowd of more than 100,000. He also remembers how things spiraled out of control a year ago.
''We're all stoked and excited about it,'' he said of Saturday's meeting. ''It's always been a big game for us, whatever year it is and Ohio State is a great program, just like we are. I think it's going to be fun.''
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