It’s August and Penn State is in Beaver Stadium for just the second scrimmage of training camp.
Bill O’Brien has stopped the proceedings because the Nittany Lions coach wants to start one of his most important drills.
“Two-minute! We’re back here!” O’Brien yells, motioning for his offense to practice a late winning drive from the far side of the 50. “We got a timeout, we need a touchdown to win!
Getting the call, Christian Hackenberg proceeds to go under center and ultimately find the end zone, throwing a touchdown to Brandon Felder.
“I feel really comfortable in that situation,” Hackenberg said Wednesday. “And I think the team is really comfortable with it, too. In the Indiana game, we ran it at some points where it wasn’t a two-minute situation. I think practice had definitely been a big thing for us to be as comfortable as we are in it.”
So maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that Hackenberg and his receivers made it look easy on Saturday against Michigan. The Lions have constantly worked on that scenario since the summer.
OK, maybe not that exact scenario. Going 80 yards in 23 seconds for a tying touchdown against an unbeaten top-25 team with no timeouts isn’t easy to simulate.
But repetition remains the key.
“We talk about the plays, the coverages that we expect,” O’Brien said. “This isn’t unique to Penn State, but we practice the two-minute drill every single day. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So we try to mix up the situations.
“Hopefully two or three times during the year those situations come up and our players have an idea how to react, and then they have to go out there and execute. We were fortunate enough to do that on Saturday.”
The Lions are also fortunate enough to have a quarterback in Hackenberg who wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment as a true freshman.
To be sure, both Allen Robinson and Felder timed their jumps perfectly in traffic to haul in the last two passes that set up Hackenberg’s QB sneak for the tying score.
“I they were good reads (by Hackenberg),” O’Brien said. “I’d have to give the credit there to the receivers that went up and made those plays, Brandon and Allen.”
But in all, it was a huge step in the maturation of a rookie quarterback, who suddenly leads the Big Ten in passing yards with 1,672. That puts him on pace to break the school record Matt McGloin set last season (3,266).
He has 11 touchdown passes and six interceptions through six games.
“I’m happy where I’m at right now,” Hackenberg said. “I just feel there’s always room for improvement in every aspect. Mentally and physically, in terms of mechanics, you just want to keep that all in tune. I’m just trying to improve my game as a whole.”
Generally even-keeled in interviews, Hackenberg had bristled a bit a week earlier when asked if he thought his play had regressed following the loss to Indiana.
He then came out against the previously unbeaten Wolverines and helped deliver a drive that will go down in school history.
“I believe he’s improved every week,” O’Brien said. “Every time he sees something, it’s basically the first time he’s seeing it at the college level. Now we head to Ohio State, and he’s playing a game in one of the most famous stadiums in the history of college football. So that will be new for him.
“I think he’s improved every week, I think he’s a focused guy. I believe we just always have to continue to improve with his accuracy and his mechanics and his knowledge of the offense. I think he’ll do that. I’m very pleased with where he is right now.”
Marquee matchup in the works?
The Big Ten announced its conference schedules for the 2018 and 2019 seasons on Wednesday. What made the most waves in Pennsylvania, however, was a non-conference tidbit.
The conference had posted online a schedule matrix for all (soon-to-be) 14 members of the Big Ten for the next decade-plus. Curiously, in 2020 Penn State was listed as playing LSU at a neutral site. That version was quickly pulled down, but not before The Daily Collegian at Penn State saved a copy for posterity.
No game between the Lions and Tigers has been finalized, and any future meeting is still in the discussion phase.