Talking to the media on the field before practice Tuesday, O'Brien said, “By the end of the week, we'll make a decision on who will start the Syracuse game.”
Then came this qualifier: “But I would say both guys will play this year.”
As a first-year coach at Penn State in 2012, O'Brien named senior Matt McGloin as his starting QB early in the summer and never waivered from the decision. McGloin went on to enjoy a record-setting season.
The coach said this year's competition is much different. Ferguson arrived on campus in January. Hackenberg enrolled at Penn State in the summer.
“In this situation, where you have two young guys and neither of them have been here very long, I think it's important for each guy to continue to earn their stripes and continue to gain the respect of their teammates,” O'Brien said. “Until I feel good about where that's at, I'd say both guys are very close.”
“They're really even,” tight end Matt Lehman added. “Both working hard, both making plays. So it's a toss-up right now. But whoever we have out there against Syracuse is gonna be a good quarterback.”
Asked if there was a benefit of not naming a starter to keep Syracuse guessing, O'Brien first joked, “I don't have to do anything (reporters) want me to do.”
But later he added, “I will name somebody. I'll tell you guys there will be a guy who runs out there and starts the first game. And the guy that's the starter will play the majority of the snaps. But I think it's important when you have two young guys -- it's a totally different situation than you had last year -- is that whoever the backup is is a young guy that needs to get his feet wet a little bit. So why not play him a series here or there just to get him into a major college football game and let him get his feet wet?”
O'Brien declined to give details when asked to compare and contrast the two quarterbacks. Instead, he said, “They're more similar than they are different.”
Hackenberg is a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, while Ferguson checks in a 6-3, 215.
“They both have the ability to throw the ball down the field, to make athletic moves on the perimeter of the defense,” O'Brien said. “They're both athletic -- even for their size, both those guys can run. So we've seen a lot of that. They can both throw on the run.”
O'Brien admitted he's never had a quarterback competition stretch this close to a season. Not as QBs coach at Georgia Tech or Duke. And not as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, where Tom Brady was (and is) entrenched as the top passer.
But if there is any stress stemming from this extended battle, the coach is not letting on.
“I've never had more fun coaching quarterbacks than I've had coaching these two guys,” O'Brien said. “They're bright guys. They work at it. They compete in practice. They've got good demeanors. They've got good huddle command.
“So I've had a lot of fun coaching both of these guys,” he added.