The 71st renewal of the Penn State-Syracuse football rivalry Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium looks like a game of Texas Hold 'Em. Second-year Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien and rookie Syracuse coach Scott Shafer both are managing quarterback competitions and vowed not to reveal their hole card until the 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
O'Brien is choosing between 19-year-old junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and 18-year-old freshman Christian Hackenberg, while Shafer must decide between sophomore Terrel Hunt or senior Drew Allen, a transfer from Oklahoma. Neither coach wants a rotating system, but each said both their quarterbacks must be ready to play Saturday.
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The ironic thing is that the game might be decided by which team can best stop the run.
Penn State returns 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak, while Syracuse features a pair of backs, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, who totaled 2,001 rushing yards last season.
As O'Brien said, "If your defense isn't centered on stopping the run, No. 1, then you're going to be in trouble."
But quarterback is where the intrigue lies for both defenses. O'Brien said the Lions "have to be ready for two different styles of play" from Allen, who is viewed as a strong-armed pocket passer, and Hunt, who relies more on the short passing game and his running ability.
Of course, Shafer says the stereotype is wrong, that both can run if necessary. The key to their success is which one commands the offense best.
"In a realistic world, you've got to be ready to play either throughout the course of the game," Shafer said. "[But] I don't want to be in a yo-yo situation."
At Penn State, Ferguson got the jump by playing spring football and learning O'Brien's complicated offensive system, but the coach said Hackenberg "learned at a rapid pace" when he arrived in the summer. Each has impressed the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator with their intelligence in the classroom and ability to execute.
Most pleasing to O'Brien, who replaced the late Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, is that two high-profile quarterbacks chose Penn State despite sanctions that will keep the Lions out of bowl games through the 2015 season.
"It represents a lot to me personally that these two guys would commit to us during a time when they could have gone to a number of different places," O'Brien said. "A horrible thing happened here, but Penn State is just a fantastic place where you can play good football, and even more important, get a fantastic education. Having both of those guys commit to us here at Penn State along with the other guys that stayed committed to us on this football team means a lot to this whole place."