Hackenberg presents pro-style passing challenge
For all of Christian Hackenberg’s eye-popping numbers — namely 773 yards and a 65.1 completion percentage through two games — nothing is more telling of the Penn State quarterback’s prowess than what shows up on film.
“I haven’t seen all the quarterbacks around the country, but I find it hard to believe there’s a better quarterback in the country that we’ll face as an opponent than Christian Hackenberg,” said Rutgers head football coach Kyle Flood. “He’s the prototype NFL quarterback, he’s got the prototype arm, and he’s got weapons all over the field to use.”
The 6-foot-4, 234-pound talented sophomore is the greatest challenge facing the Scarlet Knights’ defense this week, and it comes at a less than desirable time.
Rutgers faces its third different style of offense in three games after surrendering 965 yards of total offense to Washington State and Howard. Several issues, namely tackling and assignment breakdowns, plagued the Knights for stretches of both contests.
And for as talented as Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday is, the Knights must now contend with one of the most intelligent signal callers in college football.
Senior linebacker Kevin Snyder sees Hackenberg as one of the best pro-style quarterbacks in the nation.
“A lot of times, when you get those guys in those west coast type systems — the Fresno State types — they’re a first-read type team,” Snyder said. “They seen open grass, they throw it. With this guy, if you take his first read away, he understands progressions. He can move from receiver to receiver. So you can’t just say, ‘We’re just going to take away his first read. We’re going to hit him. We’re going to get off the field.’ You have to stay in your defense. You have to do your responsibility as a defensive player.”
The Knights exuded confidence throughout the week that second-half execution woes last Saturday against Howard were within their control. Fundamentals will be sharpened for one of the biggest games in school history, they insist.
Still, it’s likely the Big Ten’s leader in passing yards will demand a worthy counterpart.
That’s where Gary Nova comes into play. Despite playing without two of his top-three projected wideouts thus far, the senior quarterback leads the conference and ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency to jumpstart perhaps his best start to a season in Piscataway.
But his ability to perform in big games has always been suspect, and now, more than ever, how significantly the highs and lows throughout his career have molded him will come into play.
“I’ve seen Gary change throughout this entire offseason,” said senior fullback Michael Burton. “Starting with the spring, even the winter, the summer — he’s been awesome. He’s really a true leader, two-time captain. He’s been a great leader this season, and I have all the confidence in him, as does the entire team. With that confidence, I know he’s going to do fine.”
Even though Nova has gone toe-to-toe with marquee quarterbacks before, particularly Halliday two weeks ago and former Arkansas gunslinger Tyler Wilson two years ago, how effectively he matches up with Hackenberg is of little concern to him.
“I never look at it like that,” Nova said. “It’s a great opportunity to play a team like Penn State, first Big Ten game in the school’s history, things like that. I try not to make it a head-to-head thing. That’s more for the media.”
So Nova, two passing touchdowns away from tying Mike Teel’s all-time school record, appears exclusively focused on doing his part.
And perhaps most important, Rutgers’ defense must follow suit against Hackenberg.
“He’s got a great arm, and he’s got a great understanding of their offense,” Snyder said. “I think that’s the biggest thing — he knows where the ball needs to be and has the ability to put it there every time if he needs to. So, we’re going to need to obviously keep him contained. We’re going to have to be a lot sharper in all three levels of our defense to keep him in check.”