This isn't your Joe Pa's Penn State football program. Not with second-year coach Bill O'Brien practically abandoning the running game in the second half while trusting true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to deliver a victory in his college debut Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.
Hackenberg came up big with two second-half touchdown passes in a 23-17 win over Syracuse, but he nearly threw it away with an interception that set up the final Orange TD with 6:58 left and kept the game in doubt until the end.
Nittany Lions fans grew accustomed to the late Paterno's conservative approach over more than four decades. So it was a shocker when O'Brien allowed Hackenberg to throw on third-and-11 from the Penn State 30 while protecting a 23-10 lead with barely seven minutes left.
Syracuse defensive end Robert Welsh from Bayport and St. Anthony's High on Long Island dropped into coverage to make the interception and returned it 31 yards before being upended at the 1-yard line. Orange running back Jerome Smith scored on the next play to make it a six-point game with 6:58 remaining.
"Hindsight being 20-20, I put him in a bad situation there," O'Brien said of Hackenberg. "He made a mistake, but I've got to coach that better. They 'spied' the defensive lineman out. He made a great play. I'm not sure Christian has ever even seen that before in a live game."
Describing the interception, Walsh said: "I dropped and looked at the quarterback's eyes, and he just threw it to me. I said, 'Oh, I have the sideline,' and I got to the end zone as quick as I could."
Following Smith's score, Penn State relied on its defense. The Nittany Lions were held to 57 yards rushing, including only two second-half yards, and they converted only one of 16 third-down situations.
Hackenberg, who won a training camp duel with junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson, completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and the two touchdowns to counter his two interceptions. O'Brien benched wide receiver Allen Robinson for the first half for undisclosed reasons, but Hackenberg went to Robinson (seven catches, 133 yards) as soon as he entered in the third quarter.
Robinson caught a long pass down the left sideline and made a move to the middle to go 51 yards for a touchdown and a 13-3 lead. Syracuse responded with a two-play TD drive, including a 55-yard pass from quarterback Drew Allen to Jeremiah Kobena that set up a 10-yard TD run by Smith.
Penn State's Sam Ficken kicked his third field goal of the game for a 16-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, then Hackenberg hit wideout Eugene Lewis on a 54-yard post pattern for a TD and a 23-10 lead with 11:39 left.
"Once I got the first snap out of the way and started getting a little more completions under my belt and the team started moving the ball, I definitely felt more comfortable," Hackenberg said.
But then came the interception that nearly ruined his day. "The defensive lineman just ," Hackenberg said. "We had practiced it, but that was a mistake I made."
Asked if he was surprised by O'Brien's emphasis on the passing game, Hackenberg said: "I'm not going to say either way. He just had a lot of confidence in what we were doing, and we executed pretty well."