Just two years ago, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was working with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise what he has been able to do with true freshman Christian Hackenberg at Penn State.
This season Hackenberg has thrown for 1,367 yards. He’s averaging 273.4 yards per game, second only in the Big Ten to Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld (293.4 YPG). Hackenberg has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and has thrown eight touchdowns to four interceptions this season.
“I tell you, he’s very talented, very talented,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “He can spin it. Shows a lot of maturity.”
That maturity from Penn State’s signal-caller will be facing Hoke’s defense this weekend in Happy Valley -- a matchup that provides very interesting points on both sides of the ball. However, one of the biggest keys to Michigan’s success will be how it deals with Hackenberg.
He will be the best pocket passer the Wolverines have faced all season and he has shown that as the game goes on, he gets more comfortable in the offense. In first quarters this season the Nittany Lions have only scored 21 points, as opposed to 33 second quarter points, 38 third quarter points and 68 fourth quarter points.
So Michigan will want to try and get the pressure on Hackenberg early and often, because if the Wolverines don’t, he’ll be able to find his stride and make big plays.
Taking shots down the field is something the freshman has had good success with because of O’Brien’s offensive scheme. The Nittany Lions will often max protect their QB because he doesn’t pose as much of a threat to take off running to opposing defenses.
“They’ll keep the tight end in, they’ll keep the back in and other times they’ll send everyone out,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “When we do have four rushers on five blockers, we have to change the math. I mean, as long as they keep working to beat a guy and when you look at the film, if we can win the one-on-ones and not get blocked one-on-one on a pass, you can say we’re heading in the right direction.”
Forcing the Nittany Lions into poor third down situations will also be critical as Hackenberg has struggled, converting just 22 of 74 third down attempts.
However, the Wolverine defense has also shown that third down defense isn’t its high point either. They’ve allowed teams to convert more than 40 percent of the time.
“Getting off the field is important -- we’ve got to do a better job,” Hoke said. “I think this defense is coming around. Is it exactly where we need to be? No. But I think there are guys who played better urgency, especially in the red zone. We’re just a work in progress because of some of the youth that’s out there.”
And while Hoke is talking about his defensive youth, the true youth is going to be the Penn State quarterback, who has just five college starts under his belt and only recently became old enough to vote.
“He’s a very good quarterback,” Mattison said. “He has got a good arm. He seems very intelligent.”
The Wolverines know that at home, in a white out in Beaver Stadium, Hackenberg would love to pick apart a Michigan defense. And age has nothing to do with that kind of skill.