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Penn State notebook: Hackenberg sees hardship as learning tool

Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg sat at a table with a halo of microphones and recorders around his head Saturday after a 34-10 loss to No. 10 Michigan State and, much like his teammates, grasped for elusive answers about what has bedeviled the Nittany Lions’ offense this season.

Hackenberg certainly seeks solutions. The offensive struggles harmed his reputation as much as that of any playmaker.

A season removed from a 12-game campaign in which he won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award and threw for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, the sophomore realized the challenges of meeting wildly high expectations. Hackenberg finished this regular season with 2,606 yards, and his completion percentage dipped just a bit — 58.9 last year to 54.3.

But all eyes end up on Hackenberg’s other statistics: 8 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and 42 sacks.

At no point in the past decade did Penn State’s quarterbacks get sacked even 25 times in a season, let alone 40-plus.

“I thought it was the best thing that could possibly happen to me,” Hackenberg said of the hardship. “Some people don’t go through that type of adversity in their entire college career, or some guys even past that, whether it be in the NFL or in the business world. So I think it’s one of those things that you can take away and apply to every facet of life.”

Hackenberg finished the regular season on a positive note, as he threw for 195 yards, his highest total since Oct. 25. But he also endured three sacks, including one that led to a costly second-half fumble, and threw an interception in Michigan State’s end zone.

On Saturday, coach James Franklin again brought up the need for the wide receivers to get more separation from defensive backs, whether by pure speed or craftier route running.

Just minutes later, redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton, the team’s leading receiver with 75 catches for 848 yards, said he believed the wideouts sufficiently separated from their defenders and shifted the source of the troubles to timing issues between the offense’s various pieces.

And more often than not, the injury-prone offensive line enters the picture.

But Hackenberg passed on the finger-pointing and focused on what he considers a promising future.

“We have a scheme here that we’re starting to believe in more and more each week, and the coaching staff is starting to believe more and more in each one of us each week,” Hackenberg said. “I came into this season with sort of a ‘Whatever happens, happens’ type of mentality. Whether it’s good or it’s bad, we’re going to take it with a grain of salt, and continue to get better from it.”

Ficken feels bad

Senior kicker Sam Ficken set Penn State’s single-season record for made field goals when he converted his 23rd of the season, a 41-yarder, Saturday. But after the game, Ficken remained stuck on the frustrating moments of his performance.

A poorly struck opening kickoff by Ficken bounced its way downfield before Michigan State returned it for a 90-yard score.

And he later badly missed a 51-yard attempt, as he booted a line drive that barely cleared the defensive line.

“It is a nice personal achievement,” Ficken said of the record, “but I would give that back in a heartbeat if it meant we could get the win.”

Nice, but not enough

Penn State held Michigan State’s offense to its lowest offensive yardage total of the season, 298. The Spartans’ previous low was 446.

To learn the full extent of another strong defensive performance stung the Nittany Lions’ offensive playmakers.

“We love our defense,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “They have kept us in a lot of games and allowed us to win some and be in the games at the last minute. … Sometimes we just wish that we were able to return the favor.”

Defensive back recruit added

Penn State added a four-star defensive back to its list of Class of 2015 recruits Sunday.

Garrett Taylor, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior at St. Christopher’s in Richmond, Va., committed to the Nittany Lions over LSU, Ohio State, Michigan and others. He previously gave his word to Michigan but changed his mind in late October.

Taylor missed his senior season at St. Christopher’s due to a torn ACL he suffered in his left knee in the preseason.

The Nittany Lions’ collection of Class of 2015 recruits now is at 19 players and includes Baldwin lineman Sterling Jenkins.

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.


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