With true freshman QB Christian Hackenberg sometimes looking like the future face of the program and sometimes looking like a … well … true freshman, Penn State did enough good things to overcome the bad things and win, 23-17.
The good? Hackenberg threw for 278 yards and two scores. WR Allen Robinson came off the bench for an explosive second half (133 yards and a score). And the defense held the Orange to 260 total yards and forced three turnovers.
The bad? PSU had no consistent running game. Hackenberg had two passes picked. Robinson was on the bench in the first half, presumably for disciplinary reasons. And the Lions had some really poor tackling in spots.
“We've got a long way to go,” head coach Bill O'Brien said afterward. “We're just trying to win the day. We won today -- we're grateful for that.”
Here is a closer look at what went down.
MAN OF THE HOUR: If there was any question before the game why Bill O'Brien picked Hackenberg to start over junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson, there was none after. In the face of loaded fronts and frequent pressure, the rookie maintained his composure. Hackenberg even quick-kicked once, for 42 yards.
CLOSE SECOND: S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, forced to double as a Sam linebacker when starter Mike Hull was hurt, was outstanding. He had eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.
CLOSE THIRD: DT DaQuan Jones was a beast, with a team-high nine tackles. Three of them, including a sack, were for losses.
DOWN & UP: O'Brien declined to give details on why Robinson was benched in the first half. But when he returned, he wasted no time making an impact. On PSU's first two plays of the second half, Robinson had a 25-yard catch and run, and then a 51-yard grab for a score. His big second half also was hurt by a key fumble. Which brings us to…
TURNING POINT: Robinson's third-quarter fumble was scooped up by DB Brandon Reddish, who looked like he might score on the return. But PSU offensive tackle Garry Gilliam tracked him down and dropped him at the Nittany Lion 27. The score was 13-10 in favor of Penn State at the time. Syracuse went three and out, and Ross Krautman missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt.
SOLID STRATEGY: With the Orange stacking the line to stop the run, O'Brien was not afraid to let Hackenberg chuck the pigskin. That worked … most of the time.
NUMBERS GAME: The Lions had 57 net rushing yards. They had just two in the second half.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: Once-maligned kicker Sam Ficken was good on all three of his attempts, bringing his two-season streak to 13 straight makes. Saturday featured a career-long 46 yarder. Ficken also had four touchbacks on six kickoffs. Honorable-mention honors to punt return man Jesse Della Valle, who had a 31-yarder.
WHAT'S UP WITH?
• Penn State having a handful of defensive plays where its tackling was horrible. Could this be an issue rising from the team doing so little tackling in practice?
• O'Brien having Hackenberg throw while facing third-and-11 from his own 30 with about seven minutes left and the Lions in control, 23-10. The pass was picked by Robert Welch and returned to the PSU 1, leading to a short TD run. It cut the lead to 23-17, and made O'Brien and company sweat down the stretch. After the game, O'Brien admitted the call was a mistake.
• Standout tight end Kyle Carter not catching a pass. There were times he had man coverage from a smaller DB and Hackenberg could not get him the rock.
• Ferguson fumbling without being hit in the first quarter. The ball just popped out of his hand and Syracuse recovered. That was the last we saw of the sophomore.
• DE Deion Barnes making no tackles (but he did bat a pass). In fairness, it looked like some holding might have been going on.
HIT SQUAD: Obeng-Agyapong wiped out Orange QB Drew Allen in the fourth quarter. Credit Allen for holding on to the ball on the play.
HIDDEN HERO: Without Gilliam's big tackle, things might have played out differently.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Holder Ryan Keiser had a nice run on a fake field goal in the second quarter. He gained five yards and a first down, but the Lions had to settle for a Ficken kick later in the drive.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• TE Matt Lehman and LB Mike Hull were both knocked out of the game with what appeared to be knee injuries. O'Brien would not elaborate on either injury, but Lehman's appeared to be more serious. As Hull left the field in street clothes after the game, he said he was OK.
• Obeng-Agyapong replaced Hull, speaking to State's lack of depth at LB.
• When starting CB Jordan Lucas went to the sideline with cramps during the game, Adrian Amos moved from safety to corner. Lucas left the game several times but always returned.
• The other starting CB, Trevor Williams, sealed the game with an interception in his first career start at the position.
• Hackenberg completed his first six passes and was 11 of 15 in the first half. But his longest completion was 18 yards. He aired things out more in the second half.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: How much will the Nittany Lions learn from the mistakes they made Saturday?