Maybe James Franklin has a crystal ball.
Before Christian Hackenberg engineered Penn State’s game-winning drive on Saturday in Dublin, the coach –about to direct his new football program for the first time no less- knew he could count on his quarterback.
“He’s a special guy, we just have to go out and support him,” Franklin told ESPN’s Kenny Mayne just before kickoff.
It was almost as if Mayne could have told Franklin that the Nittany Lions would be down a point with 1:13 left on the clock and the first-year Penn State coach would have responded back with something along the lines of “did we get six or kick the field goal.”
It’s not because Franklin is overly confident or naïve; it’s simply because he believes his quarterback is just that good. The age old “it” factor that we hear so often in sports, the confidence, will to win, ability to overcome: all rolled into a slick description.
But Saturday’s eight-play, 55 yard game-winning drive hasn’t been Hackenberg’s only act. There was also a pair of late scoring drives against Michigan last season (including a five-play, 80 yard touchdown drive) to force overtime in a game that Penn State eventually won.
Great players, the best ones, want the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. But wanting that opportunity and doing something with it are two completely different things.
Sixty-eight seconds can be an eternity in college football, but a comeback bid can also end much before all of those precious seconds tick off the clock. Hackenberg had three timeouts, but also had little help from his peers for most of the game. He already had set a Penn State record with 407 passing yards. He had taken some shots standing in the pocket waiting for open targets. Nobody would have blamed him for not leading his team to a win on a day in which his team gained just 57 yards on 28 carries.
UCF dropped almost every available man into coverage to prevent becoming Hackenberg’s next late-game victim. Tight coverage all over the field quickly forced the Lions into a fourth-and-three from their own 33-yard line.
Then came back-to-back “it” moments for the last year’s Big Ten freshman of the Year.
Yet again unable to find an open target on a do-or-die fourth down, Hackenberg took matters into his own hands and scrambled his way for an eight-yard gain and a first down.
The pocket-passer speeding for first down with his legs showed his will to do whatever it takes to win. Just seconds later on first down, Hackenberg stepped up confidently in the pocket but yet again saw no Lions breaking free from coverage. Instead of panicking, Hackenberg waited patiently and hit Bill Belton with a cheeky shovel pass that Belton took across midfield for another first down.
It wasn’t the pass more so than it was how cool and collected Hackenberg looked in a pressure moment. After a completion to Geno Lewis on the next play, Hackenberg stood in on second down with 17 seconds left and fired a quick out to Lewis, who broke away from defenders and setup the Lions in field goal range.
Lewis was open and it was a quick throw, but Hackenberg’s execution in the final minute was impressive. It looked like he was in practice and not a season-opening game across the Atlantic. It looked like something he’d done a million times. It was easy for him.
That confidence and moxie is what sets Hackenberg apart from other quarterbacks in the county. And since he’s been installed as the starting quarterback, those extra qualities -The it factor if you will- has been there, and it’s rubbed off on his teammates.
“The most important thing is that we have that ingredient, which is that we know how to win,” Franklin told StateCollege.com.
“When I talk about the ingredient, ‘it’ is what I’m talking about…that’s what coaches and teams are searching for constantly. It’s being able to find that ingredient and figuring how to win. This team knows how to do that. We need to clean up all the other things.”