Florida State's Jameis Winston would be one answer, for sure, but I can't think of many others beyond the reigning Heisman winner. Fact is, with Ohio State's Braxton Miller sidelined for the season, Penn State's super sophomore is poised to become the Big Ten's king of clutch.
As a true freshman, Hackenberg led a touchdown drive to tie the score in regulation against Michigan and a two-minute drill to set up a tying field goal against Illinois. Penn State went on to win both of those games. He was even better Saturday, when the Nittany Lions took over on their own 26 with 1:13 remaining, trailing UCF by a point. Hackenberg went 4-of-6 for 55 yards on the drive, and his best play was probably an 8-yard scramble on fourth-and-3, to get in range for Sam Ficken's game-winning field goal.
"The key is [No.] 14," UCF coach George O'Leary said after the game. "I think everybody in the country would like to have him.''
We tend to think young quarterbacks need time to mature into late-game magicians, but some just seem to naturally have it in them. Winston, Johnny Manziel and Miller all showed that as freshmen. So did Hackenberg.
He did throw two interceptions Saturday, but the entire offense was riding on his right arm. A patchwork offensive line couldn't open holes for the running game, which managed just 57 yards on 28 carries, so he chucked it 47 times en route to a school-record 454 passing yards. It was a master class on the QB position, Ben Jones writes.
Penn State will likely have to lean hard on Hackenberg all year long, and keeping him healthy is likely the No. 1 key to its season. But if the Nittany Lions can just hang around long enough in games to give No. 14 a chance to win them at the end, good things could happen.
On to the Labor Day links:
- Tevin Coleman and defense -- yes, defense -- helped Indiana get by Indiana State.
- Michigan coach Brady Hoke was pleased with his offensive line after the unit paved the way for 350 yards rushing vs. Appalachian State.
- Joe Rexrode's 11 takeaways from Michigan State's opening victory.
- Ohio State has a lot of athletes, but who are the true playmakers at wide receiver? That and other observations from Ari Wasserman.
- Rutgers' offensive line was one of the highlights of the team's win at Washington State.
- Maryland's receiver depth could take another hit, depending on the outcome of the MRI today on Taivon Jacobs' knee.
- Penn State's young receivers answered the bell in Ireland.
- Grades for Illinois' unimpressive win over Youngstown State.
- Iowa needs to make major improvement after a Week 1 scare from Northern Iowa.
- Ameer Abdullah continues to elevate his game for Nebraska. Tommy Armstrong Jr. looked polished in his opening act.
- Northwestern flopped in its season debut.
- Purdue was far from perfect, but it scored enough to get its first win over an FBS opponent since 2012.
- Big nonconference wins remain elusive for Wisconsin. The Big Ten missed a big opportunity with the Badgers.
Rutgers RB Paul James: It sure looks as if we can add James to the growing list of solid running backs in the conference. James was the constant in the Knights’ offense Thursday and, whenever it faltered, he was the one to pick it up. His stat line: 29 carries, 173 yards, three TDs. He was the workhorse against Washington State, and he was the reason the Knights were able to match the Cougars’ high-scoring offense. Maybe Leonte Carroo was a bit flashier -- maybe -- but James was Mr. Consistent.
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: All he did was set a single-game school record with 454 passing yards. And, oh yeah, he went 4-of-6 for 55 yards and ran for another 8 yards on the game-winning drive. He took his share of hits in the pocket and didn’t get much run support, but he did just about everything he could for the win. Did he force it at times? You bet. But he was the main reason PSU moved the ball downfield, and he is now the only player in the 127-year history of the Nittany Lions to reach the 400-yard passing plateau. How could we not give him a helmet sticker?
Penn State K Sam Ficken: It’s only fair. Hackenberg drove the offense; Ficken won the game. After missing four field goals in the 2012 loss to Virginia, Ficken redeemed himself by going 4-of-4 on Saturday -- and by nailing the last-second, game-winning 36-yard field goal. Kickers don’t earn helmet stickers all that often, but kickers don’t have days like Ficken too often, either. It’s a true underdog story.
Michigan WR Devin Funchess: Tell me if you see a pattern here. First score, first passing TD -- Funchess. Second score, second passing TD -- Funchess. Third score … OK, OK. You get it. Funchess finished with seven catches for 95 yards and scored the game’s first three TDs. He helped ice this game before it really started. Props to Devin Gardner for getting him the ball, but Funchess has to get most of the credit on those last two tosses. He leaped, made an adjustment and broke a tackle for the second TD. And he came up with a catch in double coverage for the third.
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: His video game-esque stats are a bit misleading, since a lot of his yards came after the catch. But Barrett didn’t let up in his first career start. He kept a cool head in the second half and helped lead the Buckeyes to a comeback win. His final numbers? Check this out: 12-of-15, 226 passing yards, two TDs, one interception, 50 rushing yards. He really earned this helmet sticker with his final two quarters, going 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two TDs. It was a memorable first start.
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: The impressive part? Abullah rushed for 232 yards and a TD on just 21 carries. The more impressive part? He was pulled in the middle of the third quarter when the game was in hand. He was nearly perfect after the first drive; nine of his last 15 carries went for at least 10 yards. He’s shifty, he’s quick, and he just outright confused the hapless Florida Atlantic defense. We see many more helmet stickers in Mr. Abdullah’s future.
1. Familiar issues preventing Wisconsin from next step: The Badgers had a wonderful chance to springboard themselves into the playoff conversation, as they had a young LSU team down 24-7 in the third quarter. But it unraveled in a hurry as several familiar problems -- and some bad luck on the injury front -- doomed Wisconsin in a 28-24 loss. Wisconsin won't become an elite program until it has more dynamic quarterback and receiver play to complement its bread-and-butter run, can avoid blunders in the kicking game and shores up the secondary. Injuries to two starting defensive linemen certainly hurt, and star running back Melvin Gordon wasn't right after a long run in the third quarter. But the same limitations we've seen before with the Badgers surfaced again in a painful season-opening loss. There's still a lot to play for, but a win would have been huge for Wisconsin and the Big Ten.
3. PSU, OSU lines are works in progress: A Penn State offensive line with just one returning starter and two converted defensive tackles starting at the guard spots topped any fan's list of concerns entering the season. Ohio State's offensive line might not have been the biggest red flag following Braxton Miller's injury, but there was some curiosity with four new starters. Both units did some good things Saturday, especially down the stretch in wins against UCF and Navy, respectively. But Penn State struggled to get its power run going and endured two holding penalties and two false starts. Ohio State had just 71 rush yards on 24 attempts through the first three quarters against an undersized Navy defense. The Buckeyes finished strong (122 fourth-quarter rush yards) but need to make strides, beginning this week against Virginia Tech. Michigan also entered its opener with the offensive line in the spotlight. Although Appalachian State isn't a great gauge, Michigan got its ground game going with 350 yards and two 100-yard rushers (Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith).
4. Rutgers could be a surprise team: Few expected much from the Scarlet Knights, including the Big Ten reporter crew, but Kyle Flood's team began the season on an impressive note. It's never easy to travel to the West Coast, and Rutgers opened with a Washington State team poised to expose its shaky pass defense. Although Washington State racked up 532 pass yards, Rutgers controlled the line of scrimmage and much of the game in a 41-38 win. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has made an immediate impact, and Rutgers showcased a powerful run game led by Paul James and a big-play pass attack. The defense still needs work, and the competition level will improve, but Rutgers should be 2-0 before its highly anticipated Big Ten debut Sept. 13 against Penn State at High Points Solutions Stadium.
5. Northwestern is reeling: Few FBS teams had a rockier offseason than Northwestern, which endured the union debate, Venric Mark's stunning departure and several key injuries in the preseason. Pat Fitzgerald always had found ways to get his teams ready for the season and entered Saturday with an 8-0 mark in openers. But Northwestern didn't look ready against Cal and was outplayed in all three phases during the first 42 minutes. The Wildcats made a nice run at the end of the third quarter and had chances to complete a comeback but went conservative at the wrong times and made too many errors in a 31-24 home loss, its fifth consecutive setback at Ryan Field. You wonder if this team has reached a breaking point after all the setbacks since the past October. A Week 2 win against Northern Illinois is critical.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Devin Gardner threw three touchdown passes to Devin Funchess in the first half and Michigan went on to rout Appalachian State 52-14 in the season opener on Saturday, seven years after being on the losing end of perhaps the biggest upset in college football history.
The Wolverines coasted to victory after Gardner threw TD passes to Funchess on their first two drives, and connected with him for a third score late in the first half to give them a 21-0 lead.
The Mountaineers matched Michigan's game-opening TD the first time they had the ball in 2007 and in a closely contested game, they became the first second-tier program to beat a Top 25 team after blocking a field goal as time expired.
There wasn't much drama in the rematch.
Next week, though, might be suspenseful when the Wolverines go to Notre Dame.
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Gardner Feeling Comfortable With Offense
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Eastern Illinois 20 Minnesota 42 Final Rutgers 41 Washington State 38
Final Penn State 26 UCF 24 Final Youngstown State 17 Illinois 28 Final Indiana State 10 Indiana 28 Final Northern Iowa 23 Iowa 31 Final Appalachian State 14 Michigan 52 Final 5 Ohio State 34 Navy 17 Final Western Michigan 34 Purdue 43 Final Florida Atlantic 7 22 Nebraska 55 Final California 31 Northwestern 24 Final James Madison 7 Maryland 52 Final 14 Wisconsin 24 13 LSU 28