- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A pair of new starting quarterbacks in an opening game led to a predictably choppy afternoon at MetLife Stadium on Saturday. It was only a 6-3 game at halftime, but both teams made some big plays in the second half and created some fourth quarter excitement.
In the end, Penn State's defense was a little too good, and the Nittany Lions held on in the final minutes for a 23-17 win.
Here's a brief recap:
It was over when: Penn State's Trevor Williams intercepted Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen at his own 28 with 1:53 left. Syracuse had cut the lead to 23-17 with just under seven minutes remaining but couldn't manage any points on its final two possessions as the Nittany Lions defense held.
Game ball goes to: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He wasn't perfect, but as an 18-year-old playing in an NFL stadium in his first game out of high school, he was pretty darn impressive. Hackenberg finished 22-of-31 for 273 yards and two touchdowns, though he also threw two interceptions and barely avoided another that could have been returned for a score. He also didn't have his best weapon for the first half, as star receiver Allen Robinson served a two-quarter suspension for undisclosed reasons. His perfect 54-yard strike to Eugene Lewis for a touchdown with 11:39 left gave Penn State a 23-10 lead and showed why he was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country a year ago. He fared better than new Syracuse starter and former Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, who started off strong but completed just 17-of-38 passes for 193 yards and two picks of his own.
Stat of the game: Penn State was just 1-of-16 on third downs and had only 57 rushing yards on 38 attempts. Those aren't normally winning numbers. But the Nittany Lions' defense held Syracuse to just 259 total yards.
Unsung hero of the game: Garry Gilliam. Moved from tight end to offensive line this preseason, Gilliam came up with a massive play from a defensive standpoint. Syracuse's Brandon Reddish had stripped the ball from Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, scooped it up and ran the other way. Gilliam was all that stood between Reddish and a go-ahead touchdown, but Gilliam made the tackle at the Penn State 27. The Orange would go on to miss a field goal.
Best call: In the first half, Penn State was lined up for a 47-yard field goal on fourth-and-two. Though Syracuse probably should have been ready for some trickery, Bill O'Brien pulled it off anyway by calling for holder Ryan Keiser to run the ball. Keiser barreled up the right side for five yards. That eventually resulted in a much more manageable 36-yarder for Sam Ficken, who drilled it. Ficken later made a career-long 46-yarder as one of his three made field goals, so maybe the fake wasn't even necessary. Ficken's improvement is a huge difference for this team over this time a year ago.
What Penn State learned: It has a future star in Hackenberg, but the ride isn't always going to be a smooth one as he will be prone to freshman mistakes. His interception late in the fourth quarter allowed Syracuse to get back into the game. The running game must improve so as not to put too much pressure on the youngster. Having Allen Robinson around for a whole game should help, too.
What Syracuse learned: The Orange miss Ryan Nassib and Doug Marrone as much as feared. While Allen had some moments and showed off a nice arm, the offense as a whole lacked much punch or creativity. They'll likely need some of that next week against Northwestern.