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Hackenberg's stats down, not his talent

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg’s numbers may have taken a steep drop compared to last season, but you’ll draw some funny looks from teammates and opposing coaches if you imply he’s regressed.

He’s thrown more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (4) so far, but his reputation inside football circles hasn’t declined. Really, it’s only magnified. Opposing coaches don’t praise J.T. Barrett, Gary Nova or Wes Lunt -- three of the conference’s top four quarterbacks in pass efficiency -- with the same kind of laurels they bestow upon Hackenberg. So it isn’t just lip-service.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke: “Christian Hackenberg is one of the great quarterbacks in this country.”

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald: “Christian Hackenberg is as good as anybody in the country.”

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood: “I haven’t seen all the quarterbacks around the country, but I find it hard to believe there’s a better quarterback in the country that we’ll face as an opponent than Christian Hackenberg.”

On the surface, the stats tell a simple story of a struggling quarterback whose production has fallen compared to 2013. But dig a little deeper, and the drop-off seems justifiable.

The offensive line -- to put it mildly -- has struggled mightily. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Hackenberg is under pressure on nearly 10 percent more of his dropbacks this season compared to last year. The contrast is actually even starker than that, considering Hackenberg has to throw the ball quicker to avoid such pressure.

Still, he's well above-average in dealing with a collapsing pocket. The average signal-caller in the Power Five completes 35 percent of his passes under pressure. So far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Hackenberg is completing 48.4 percent of those passes -- an increase of 5.5 percentage points over last season.

And, for those closest to Hackenberg, those numbers aren't much of a surprise.

“He’s poised in the pocket,” Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton said. “He knows what to do with the ball whether he’s under pressure or he has all the time in the world. He’s a great quarterback.”

Sure, overall, his numbers aren’t quite up to snuff compared to 2013. But that’s where a few other variables come in. Penn State hasn’t been able to offer any run support against teams not named UMass, and Hackenberg has been forced to carry the offense. In four games, he’s accounted for at least 75 percent of Penn State’s total yards. In three (UCF, Rutgers, Northwestern), he’s accounted for more than 83 percent. That makes it all the more harder for last season's Big Ten freshman of the year. Everyone already knows what's coming.

“The defense sort of knows you’re going to be back there dropping back every time,” Hackenberg said Wednesday, speaking generally about the absence of a run game. “It makes it easier for them.”

No Big Ten quarterback has dealt with lesser run support than Hackenberg. Illinois averages fewer rushing yards but still runs for a half-yard more a carry. But, twice this season, Hackenberg has stepped off the stat sheet and stepped up in critical times that numbers can’t measure.

Against Central Florida, he went 4-of-6 for 47 yards on a late game-winning drive -- and he picked up a critical first down on 4th-and-3 when he rushed for eight yards. Against Rutgers, he was even better. He finished 3-of-4 for 74 yards on a late game-winning drive -- and converted the same third down twice due to a holding call.

Hackenberg hasn’t been perfect, and there’s still obviously room for improvement. But he’s also easily one of the Big Ten’s best -- even if the postgame stat sheet doesn’t always seem to agree.