Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has relied on his defense to win games on more than one occasion since taking over the program, and Saturday was no different.
The Nittany Lions defense was great all day, holding Syracuse to 260 total yards and preserving a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter to preserve the 23-17 win. They held the Orange to just 71 yards on the ground and forced the ACC newcomers into three turnovers on the day.
But defense preserving wins is nothing new for Penn State, who routinely trots out a solid unit on that side of the ball year after year; no matter who the coach is. Several defenders stood out in the win, but none moreso than defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who was in the Syracuse backfield all day while registering nine tackles (three for loss) and a sack on the afternoon. The senior shed some weight in the offseason to increase his quickness and explosiveness, which were both on full display as he tormented the Orange offense.
On the other side of the ball, Christian Hackenberg’s first college action provided fans with a glimpse (and then some) of the talent that made him one of the most heralded recruits for the Nittany Lions in some years. The true freshman quarterback threw two touchdowns; one on a busted screen pass to Allen Robinson for 51 yards, and one on a beautifully thrown deep ball to Geno Lewis for a 54-yard score. Hackenberg finished the day 22 for 31 with 278 yards, the two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. There was good and bad from the first-time starter, but he showed excellent poise and decision-making throughout the game.
It helps to have an All-Big Ten wideout on the field, too. Allen Robinson, who was suspended for the first-half by O’Brien, made his presence felt on the second play of the third quarter when he took a busted screen pass that was intended for Brandon Moseby-Felder rom Hackenberg and weaved his way all the way to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown to put the Nittany Lions up 13-3. Robinson finished the day with seven catches for 133 yards in just one half of work following the suspension. O’Brien called the decision to suspend Robinson for the first half “something between Allen and myself.”
While both quarterbacks were starting for the first time for their respective teams, Hackenberg fared better than Syracuse starter Drew Allen, who finished the day 16 of 37 for 189 yards and two interceptions. The Oklahoma transfer never looked all that comfortable in the pocket and was erratic most of the day, including late in the fourth quarter when the Orange had a chance with the game still in reach. Allen also didn’t have as much help from his supporting cast as the Orange failed to run the ball with any great success, averaging just 1.9 yards per carry on 37 attempts.
One of the key plays in the game came in the third quarter when Hackenberg hit Robinson on a crossing route over the middle for first down yardage and then some. While fighting for extra yards, Robinson had the ball ripped out from his hands, picked up and returned by Syracuse’s Brandon Reddish deep into Penn State territory. Senior offensive tackle Gary Gilliam saved the touchdown on the return by corralling Reddish at the 27-yard line. The ensuing Syracuse drive stalled and resulted in a missed field goal that would have tied the game at 13-13.
Instead, Penn State kept the lead and started the fourth quarter with back-to-back scoring drives; first with a Sam Ficken 46-yard field goal and then when Hackenberg unleashed the 54-yard touchdown bomb to Lewis to put the Lions up 23-10. But following the good from the freshman came the bad when Hackenberg was picked off by Robert Welsh, who returned the ball to the goal line and setup a Jerome Smith one-yard touchdown run to pull the Cuse within six at 23-17 with 6:58 remaining.
From then on, O’Brien relied on his defense to bring the win home. Syracuse’s final two drives over the last 6:58 of the game totaled just 14 yards on seven plays and ended when Allen was intercepted by cornerback Trevor Williams with 1:53 left in the game. Penn State sent out the victory formation and salted the rest of the clock away to preserve the 23-17 win.
While coach O’Brien won’t be pleased with the four turnovers, he’ll come away content with the win, which is a welcome change after the team lost its first two games to start last season. Penn State opens their home schedule next week when they welcome Eastern Michigan (1-0) to Beaver Stadium.