There's this thing that you always hear people say, about how there is a difference between being hurt and being injured. Christian Hackenberg showed on Saturday night why that statement isn't always true. According to James Franklin, Penn State's doctors took a look at the noticeably gimpy signal caller, tried to determine if he had an injury, and instead ascertained that he was simply hurt. For this reason, Hackenberg went back into a game.
Of course, if you were able to watch the Nittany Lions' loss to Ohio State, you know that Hackenberg wasn't ok. When he threw passes, he was able to put his arm into throws and that was it. His right leg looked like it was on the verge of falling off of his body, and according to people in Columbus, his back wasn't much better. His two long passes in the second half, a completion to Chris Godwin and an incompletion to Saeed Blacknall, both had nothing on them. They were simply Hackenberg throwing the ball as high as he could, a pair of lame ducks that were more meant to be 50/50 balls than accurate passes. Even Hackenberg's mobility in the pocket – which isn't spectacular, but isn't as horrific as you would assume out of a quarterback who gets sacked as much as he does – was non-existent, turning him into a complete sitting duck against Ohio State's otherworldly pass rush.
And yet he stayed in. Despite Penn State being down by three touchdowns after the 6:21 mark in the fourth quarter, Hackenberg stayed in. Then Ohio State scored again, making it a four touchdown game with 4:14 left, and Hackenberg stayed in.
He kept getting hit, because Ohio State's defensive line is the best in America, and Penn State's offense became laughably one-dimensional (which, to be fair, is kind of fine in that that one dimension is awesome, but that's neither here nor there). When asked why Hackenberg stayed in, this is what James Franklin had to say:
"He got banged up, asked the doctors if he was good to go, they said he was good to go. So, again, we're gonna continue no different than late in the game, they had Bosa and their starting defense in there. We're still playing football to win, to try and find a way to be successful."
For one, we'll ignore the first thing – sometimes you need to ignore the doctors and say "hey, this guy's really banged up" or else you could have a Robert Griffin III in the 2013 playoffs situation on your hands – and we'll ignore that the "well gotta go starters vs. starters" logic is dangerous when you have players who are banged up and have spent the last 50+ minutes getting pushed around, or in the case of your star running back, just spent the last few weeks sitting out and recovering from an injury.
Instead, it's that last part that confuses me, about playing to win and being successful. If Penn State was trying to win, how come the play calling looked more like that of a team which was up by 20+? How come Penn State's quarterback dropped back to pass fewer than 20 times, getting only 12 passes off and throwing four total passes in the second half? How are you trying to find a way to be successful when, as your team is trailing and the gap becomes larger and larger, you mostly abandon the passing game?
To me, and I could very easily be wrong about this, one of two things happened. Either: 1) Christian Hackenberg was hurt as bad or way worse than anyone thought, and to give Penn State the best chance to win, the team had to do absolutely everything through Saquon Barkley, making the play calling predictable or 2) Christian Hackenberg wasn't hurt as badly as he seemed, and the play calling was predictable for reasons that don't totally make sense.
With the second thing, we've harped enough on how not great Penn State's play calling has been for stretches this year, and to be fair the play calling was pretty good for long stretches on Saturday, so I won't harp on it too much. Instead, I'll talk about the first one, because it's the only thing from Saturday's game that has me upset.
If, indeed, Hackenberg was hurt as bad as he appeared, then he should not have been in the game. With how much Penn State ignored the passing game and turned it into a non-threat in the second half, why should we be led to believe that literally anyone else was incapable of taking a snap and giving it to Barkley? Bless Hackenberg's heart, because he took a beating and showed that he wasn't going to back down, but keeping him in didn't just hurt the team, but it put the health and well-being of one of the team's leaders at risk. Imagine if, on one of his few dropbacks, Hackenberg took a clean shot from an Ohio State player and suffered an injury that would keep him out for the rest of the season? Is that risk worth it when you're down by three touchdowns or more on the road against the best team in the country?
No, it is not. The worst part is that this isn't the first time that Hackenberg stayed in the game despite being routinely hammered in a blowout: in Penn State's 27-10 loss to Temple, Hackenberg stayed in even when Penn State was down by three scores and took a few shots from the Owls' defense. Here's what Franklin had to say about that, via PennLive:
"I think it's a message. It's no different than calling timeouts at the end of the game when the game is sometimes decided. I think you keep playing.
"We had that discussion on the sideline as coaches. Obviously, we didn't think he was going to get sacked again with the plays we were calling. It happened.
"Obviously, looking back at it, you could question the decision."
It was good that Franklin – who I think is a pretty good coach and obviously doesn't have bad intentions when he doesn't pull players in blowouts – was able to look at the Temple game and say "you know what, I'm holding myself accountable." I just hope that he's able to do the same thing after the game against Ohio State, and that if this situations comes up again in the future, a few second-string guys get some playing time.