Hackenberg to face biggest test to date

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg's three Big Ten awards aren't plastered on the the walls of his first-floor dorm room. He earns the freshman-of-the-week honors, appreciates them -- and then forgets them.

It's that focus, that short-term memory, that's served the true freshman well in this first season. And Bill O'Brien is hoping that same mentality carries over to Saturday night's game against Ohio State, Hackenberg's first big test on the road.

"We know it's a huge challenge," O'Brien said. "I mean, 19 games in a row, No. 4 team in the country. We realize that's a huge, huge challenge. But we look forward to it."

ESPN's reigning coach of the year doesn't have it easy this week. He'll coach his quarterback against "the most athletic defense that we've played," a Buckeyes group that's ranked 15th in the nation in yards allowed. He'll square off against a team with the nation's longest winning streak, a team that opened as a two-touchdown favorite in Vegas.

And he'll try his best to prepare a teenage quarterback for the most hostile crowd he's ever experienced.

Penn State will crank up the offensive linemen-sized speakers on the practice field this week, blaring the likes of Bon Jovi so loud that students can feel the bass on their walks to the nearby Nittany Apartments. O'Brien will sit down with Hackenberg and try to break down the tendencies of cornerback Bradley Roby, whom O'Brien called "one of the top defensive backs in the country."

But more than anything O'Brien and Hackenberg will simply do what they do every week: Take the week day-by-day, take the game play-by-play and see how the scoreboard lights up once the referees blow that final whistle. There's not much else one can do.

"As a player, you're thinking about, 'OK, if the first play is a run, this is how I'm going to take the quarterback-center snap. This is how I'm going to come out from under center. I'm going to focus on every little detail of every play that I could possibly run in this game,' " O'Brien said. "And I think if you do that, that's what you keeps you focused -- and that lets you ignore the noise and just focus on what the task at hand is."

Six months ago, Hackenberg twirled aluminum bats at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and crouched in the infield for his baseball team. Now, the weight of a successful Penn State football season rests on his shoulders. He's gone from high school students politely clapping in the splintered bleachers to national TV audiences watching his every move.

He's taken each step with a confident shrug and a smile. In his first game, on the neutral turf of MetLife Stadium, Hackenberg jokingly turned to his right tackle and said, "If I get spaced out or anything, give me a smack."

Well, no smack was necessary. He's made mistakes -- what freshman hasn't? -- but O'Brien and his teammates have lauded the quarterback for shaking off bad throws and trudging on like a quarterback who threw an incompletion instead of an interception.

"Honestly," offensive tackle Adam Gress said Tuesday, "he knows to handle himself pretty well. He'll go in confident like the rest of us and just ready to get it done."

At one point early on this season, Hackenberg walked off the field after a pick and just glanced at O'Brien. The head coach looked back. Nothing needed to be said; Hackenberg knew what he did wrong. And, the quarterback said, O'Brien knew that he understood.

Ohio State presents a plethora of problems. There are Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier, two of the best Big Ten players at their respective positions. There's a young defensive line that's torn up opposing offensive lines, and a scarlet-and-gray crowd of 100,000-plus that will scream until their voices crack.

And then, of course, there's Hackenberg and the underdog Nittany Lions.

Hackenberg says he looks upon those individual awards more as team honors. It's not something he aims for. But as he goes, so goes this team. And if he does well enough to grab another conference honor this weekend, his team might come away with something even more valuable -- a win.