A teenager will start for Penn State at quarterback today. It will happen in front of 70,000-some people in an NFL stadium, the same one that will host the Super Bowl in another five months.
Welcome to major college football, guys. No pressure.
Most likely it will be true freshman Christian Hackenberg getting that first snap of the season as the Nittany Lions take on Syracuse. But both he and sophomore Tyler Ferguson should end up making their Penn State debuts before the sun sets.
It’s up to the rest of the team to make them both feel as comfortable as possible.
“I think early in the game, just like any first game — it’s a big game being played in a venue like MetLife Stadium — everyone will be jacked up,” said Lions coach Bill O’Brien, who has done his part to keep the quarterbacks steady by not publicly announcing a starter and building hype.
“Both sides of the ball will be pumped up. There will be a little bit of hyperventilating going on, and we’ve got to do a good job of calming these guys down and making sure we keep our poise on the sideline and get into the flow of the game quickly.”
That thought extends all the way down the roster.
“It’s not just the quarterback position,” O’Brien said. “Believe me … it’s everybody. This is a big game. You’re playing a game in MetLife Stadium. You’ve been waiting for this game for a long time, both teams.”
That includes the handful of Penn State players who hail from New York and New Jersey as well as some lifelong Giants and Jets fans.
A few seniors Jets admitted there will be a little extra adrenaline today because of it, even for an opener.
“It’s a dream come true,” said safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who grew up just across the Hudson in the Bronx. “Finally having a game right next to my hometown, I’ve got a lot of extended family coming up. Ready to show these guys that their boy is out there playing Division I football.”
“I’ve been a Giants fan since Phil Simms in the early 90s,” said senior linebacker Glenn Carson, a New Jersey native. “I haven’t been to MetLife before, but I’ve been to the Meadowlands. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got a lot of family in North Jersey and Piscataway, so it’ll definitely be huge.”
A concern for the Lions could be the weather forecast. Though scattered storms will be in the area, it’s expected to be sunny, hot and humid when kickoff comes around at 3:30 p.m.
With temperatures reaching the high 80s and things getting even hotter at field level, fatigue becomes a problem for a Penn State team with some depth issues, particularly on defense.
“I think it’s important the guys wear the right things when they play,” O’Brien said. “Not to go into detail, but making sure they’re wearing things that don’t trap the sweat and they let their bodies breathe a little bit.
“I think it’s really important that we, as coaches, rotate players in where we can. Some of the positions we can rotate a little more freely than other positions, but we’ve got to do a good job of that as coaches.”
One spot where it will be tough to rotate freely is at linebacker. O’Brien admitted as much on Thursday on his weekly radio show.
The Lions have just two players there in Carson and Mike Hull with any extensive experience in college.
“Those two guys have played a lot of football for us, and they’re very good players,” O’Brien said. “They’re multidimensional and they can do a lot of different things. They do a lot of different things for our football team both on and off the field. They’re leaders and they’re fantastic people.”
Nyeem Wartman and Ben Kline will team up with them to take most of the snaps today, but Kline is coming off of shoulder surgery and there may not be an appealing fifth option this early in the season.
O’Brien said this week that Gary Wooten will play primarily on special teams and that true freshman Brandon Bell “probably won’t play” against the Orange.
Of course, the heat will affect Syracuse as well, and the Orange are breaking in several new starters on defense, including three defensive linemen.
With both teams using a new starting quarterback, the run game will be that much more important.
Starting tailbacks Zach Zwinak of Penn State and Jerome Smith of Syracuse both have a punishing style of running, and the goal will be to wear down the opposing defense right from the opening kick.
“One of the things that we’ll talk about constantly is the beginning of the game,” O’Brien said. “How we’re going to start the game and, ‘Hey, look, if the beginning of the game doesn’t go very well, boy, there’s a lot of game left. Don’t go in the tank. Keep playing. Keep fighting.’ That’s what Penn State is all about.
“Hopefully we understand that when the game rolls around, and we’re ready to go.”