When Bill O’Brien took over the Penn State Nittany Lions football program prior to the 2012 season, following the ouster of legendary coach Joe Paterno, the school’s faithful fans spread out across the country knew that changes were coming. Some were okay with that idea, some weren’t. The bottom line was that the program needed to change, no matter who was in favor of it or not.
The main difficulty with all of this was that, as opposed to a lot of other programs who see coaching changes more so than I change my celebrity crush, Penn State fans had one leader of their men from 1966-2011 in Paterno. Pretty much everything about the program, top-to-bottom, was set in stone. JoePa also being an old-school, hard-nosed Italian man factored in to that as well.
Once he made his mind up about anything, that was the end of the story. No one was talking him out of it.
Well, one of his more famous and public pet peeves was freshmen playing on his team. Flat out, he was thoroughly against the idea altogether. While, yes, he was able to put together one of the more successful programs in the history of college football, you have to wonder how much his resistance to playing first-year athletes could have provided a few setbacks.
For example, in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, Penn State at 11-0 was downed 14-7 by Bear Bryant and Alabama, denying what could have given Paterno three national titles in his career. Can you ask yourself if there was maybe a freshman on that sideline that could have made up, in some form or fashion, that seven-point difference? Absolutely you can.
Paterno’s stance was so defiant that he lobbied, on more than one occasion, to eliminate freshman eligibility altogether in the game. He didn’t believe that 18-19 year old kids could hang with the more experienced players in college football. In his 1989 book, he shed some light on his stance:
“At some schools,” he wrote, “a freshman plays his first game before he attends his first class. He’s surrounded so immediately by athletes and gets immersed so fast in a training schedule, he has almost no chance to form friendships with other students, particularly in a school where he is segregated in an athletic dorm.”
Well, as a few other things have changed since O’Brien walked into Happy Valley, so has this. And, the leader of that charge is true freshman QB Christian Hackenberg,
After inheriting an experienced, former walk-on last season in Matt McGloin, O’Brien had a decision to make prior to this season. He could start Tyler Ferguson under center–who at least had SOME collegiate experience, being a JUCO transfer–or he could put his prized freshman recruit, Hackenberg, right into the fire to learn on the job, something that his predecessor would’ve scoffed at.
Well, Bill isn’t Joe, and Hackenberg got the nod. How has he fared so far?
He’s progressed week-to-week and is setting a new standard in State College for freshmen. He’s tossed for over 1600 yards and eleven touchdowns. Has he had his bumps? Of course he has, but like a parent letting their child pick themselves back up after making a mistake, O’Brien has done the same with the young man that has become affectionately known to the Penn State faithful as simply, “Hack.”
Hack, is exactly what he did to the Michigan defense two weeks ago on the biggest stage of his life.
In the 43-40, 4 OT upset, Hackenberg put the team on his back by going 23 for 44 with 305 yards and three scoring strikes. With 27 seconds on the clock and down by seven, he scored on a run from one-yard out to push the game into overtime.
According to JoePa’s traditional logic, something like that is not possible in the realm of college football.
This Saturday, Hackenberg will have yet another shot to shake the freshman stigma when he leads his team into Columbus to take on the undefeated and fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. He’ll need probably an even better showing than against Michigan to pull this one off, but it can be done.
As if it hasn’t been already, a theory that lasted in Penn State for the better part of 40 years could be erased–ironically, by a freshman.