Former Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg can’t believe it’s been more than 10 years since that Michigan game.
A lot has changed for Hackenberg since he was a true freshman QB with Grand Canyon-sized potential and expectations.
He set passing records at Penn State.
He got drafted into the NFL.He left the NFL. He became a husband and father. He’s dabbled in high school coaching, helping his Penn State teammate, Bill Belton, who’s the head coach at Winslow Township in New Jersey. Through another teammate, Adam Brenemen, Hackenberg has gotten into the world of podcasting, hosting a “The Pocket”with yet another old teammate, Brandon Bell.
Hackenberg does all of this while working a nine-to-five job at a tech company.
As Hackenberg’s life has changed, so have the fortunes of both Penn State and Michigan.
10 years ago, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien and his squad were fighting through crippling NCAA sanctions.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wasn’t facing anything that daunting. Still, Hoke was striving to lead Michigan back to glory.
O’Brien ended up leaving Happy Valley for the NFL’s Houston Texans after two seasons, hardly enough time to make Penn State a national power given the unprecedented circumstances. Eventually, Michigan felt it had given Hoke enough time and fired him after 2014.
Both Franklin (once) and Harbaugh (twice) have won the Big Ten, and both have a shot of doing it again this season.
That’s why Saturday’s game between Penn State and Michigan is one of the most anticipated and important ones of this college football season.
But whatever happens Saturday is unlikely to top the four-overtime wackiness that took place more than a decade ago.
None of the nine Penn State-Michigan games since have come close.
“That’s nuts how quickly it went,” Hackenberg told Nittany Sports Now. “Everyone says it, but you really don’t grasp it until it actually happens to you and slaps you in the face. It is funny seeing the old highlights on Twitter or X and Instagram and stuff like that. It’s been a minute, dude. I’m officially washed up and an oldhead, so, yeah, it’s unbelievable.”
PENN STATE-MICHIGAN: THE PRELUDE
Penn State came into the 2013 season as a group in transition.
The previous year’s team was one of the most beloved 8-4 squads in college football history due to the circumstances.
After 2012, leaders such as Michael’s Mauti and Zordich, as well as Matt McGloin, who helped keep the team together amid scandal and sanction, were gone.
McGloin’s successor at starting QB wasn’t on that 2022 team, but he also helped keep the program from falling apart.
As with any five-star recruit, Hackenberg could have played anywhere. But he committed to Penn State in February 2012. When the sanctions came down in July, Hackenberg stayed committed, and as a result, became a Penn State legend before ever even practicing with the team.
Once Hackenberg started practicing, he impressed O’Brien and the coaching staff enough to be named Week 1 starter as a true freshman.
Through the first five games, Penn State was 3-2, with a three-point loss at home to UCF— which ended up finishing undefeated— and the school’s first loss ever to Indiana being the blemishes.
Any 18-year-old in that spot would have gone through growing pains, and Hackenberg was no expedition.
“I’m going to be honest with you, man,” he said. “The way that I prepared with Coach O’Brien, and I’ve said this in the past gazillion times, like I was just dumb, dude. And I had played well. Even the Syracuse game, I had no idea what the hell I was doing from like a… Bill gave me a lot of flexibility at the line of scrimmage. So just like taking stuff from the film room and the practice room and applying that into games, and being able to get us in and out of plays and into the best plays vs. what they were giving us, stuff like that, that took time.
For Hackenberg, things “started clicking” against UCF in Week 3.
“Even that Indiana game, I made a couple checks that ended up being some explosive plays and I was more and more comfortable,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, the Michigan game for me from that side of things, it clicked.”
PENN STATE-MICHIGAN: THE GAME BEFORE THE CATCH
Lost in all that happened during the game was the fact that it was probably the most unconventional Penn State White Out of all time.
The game kicked off at 5 p.m., which Hackenberg loved.
Michigan came in 5-0, ranked No. 18 and a slight road favorite.
But as Hackenberg remembers, Penn State was “laser focused.”
It was like a good heavyweight fight.
Penn State scored the game’s first seven points.
Michigan scored the next 10.
Penn State scored two touchdowns in the second quarter on touchdown passes from Hackenberg to Jesse James and Brandon Mosbey-Felder, respectively.
PSU went into halftime up 11, but found itself down 10 with less than seven minutes left.
A Sam Ficken field goal with 6:35 left made it 34-27, which was where it stayed until the final minute.
For Hackenberg, the game was physically and, even more so, emotionally draining.
“It was a physical game,” he said, “and it was a mentally demanding game for me because they had some smart, savvy guys. You had to be careful when you were checking things, how you were checking things and communicating and stuff like that. So it was very demanding.”
Having Allen Robinson certainly made Hackenberg’s freshman season easier.
Robinson didn’t grow up a Michigan fan but grew up in Southfield, Michigan, which is less than an hour from Ann Arbor.
He didn’t get to play against Michigan in 2011 or ’12, so the ’13 game was one he was waiting for.
“That was my first time playing against Michigan,” Robinson told Nittany Sports Now. “Being from Michigan, that was a game I had circled on my calendar my entire time in college.
Robinson, who was part of coach Joe Paterno’s last recruiting class, is one of the best receivers in Penn State history, and is currently in his 10th NFL season, playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Robinson caught 177 passes in his three seasons at Penn State, good for fifth on the school’s all-time list (he was third when he left school).
But there’s only one right answer as to what the most famous one is.
How big a play was it? Well, Robinson has a tattoo of it.
Before the catch, Penn State went on the ball with 45 seconds left, down seven and needing to drive 80 yards in 45 seconds.
Hackenberg hit Robinson for a 14-yard pass to start the drive– a play both feel was underrated.
Next was a 29-yarder to Mosbey-Felder, a player Hackenberg feels was an unsung hero (six catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns).
That put the ball on the Michigan 37 with 35 seconds left.
A spike made it second and 10, and then, the play of the game happened.
Here’s how it went down in the words of the two main characters:
Hackenberg: I have a hot hand right now. I might as well smoke them while I have it. It was pretty obvious that the way it was coached if Allen can get a chance, give him a chance. You know what I mean? That was pretty much my MO. He was my get-out-of-jail-free card all year. So predetermined. I knew if I kept that safety tight, I kind of looked down the middle of the field, I was just going to reset back out, I had a little bit of pressure from the left edge, so I reset it, and I knew that safety didn’t really get a ton of width, I knew he was not going to be a factor. I was like, ‘I’m just going to let this thing fly.’ Fortunately, I didn’t throw it five yards out of bounds and he kept elevating and the corner didn’t stop.
I thought he scored, too. Like that was the funny thing. I thought he had scored, so I’m running down the field, and OB’s yelling at me, ‘Get on the ball, get on the ball.’ We ended up taking a time-out, but from my angle, it looked like he scored.
Robinson: We ran a play similar in the drive. We threw it to the other side, to the three-receiver side. Brandon Mosbey-Felder caught it. Then we end up lining up and calling the same thing. He threw it to me and gave me an opportunity.”
Robinson made the most of that opportunity.
But Penn State wasn’t out of the woods yet.
First, Michigan had 27 seconds to win the game in regulation, and in three plays, got into field goal range.
Michigan’s Brandon Gibbons had a chance to win it from 52 yards out.
“It was hairy, man,” Hackenberg said. “We had left a little bit of time on the clock. Like I said, they were moving the ball pretty well, too. So it was a little tightening all around.”
But Gibbons missed it– it wouldn’t be the last time he did that on the night–, and overtime was necessary.
By the start of OT, Hackenberg was exhausted.
“The overtime was the most challenging to keep that focus and the attention span,” he said. “Because, I mean, the game ended up being, what, like five and a half hours or something like that? It was brutal.”
Ficken and Gibbons each missed field goals in the first overtime.
They each made kicks in the second.
In the third OT, the man who made the catch of the year almost became the proverbial goat. On the first play of overtime, Robinson fumbled an end-around, and Michigan recovered.
Now, Michigan, starting at Penn State’s 25-yard line, needed just a field goal to wrap it up.
If not for Gibbons, Robinson would probably have one fewer tattoo.
Gibbons had a chance to redeem himself and win the game from 40 yards out.
Again, he missed.
Gibbons redeemed himself to an extent in the fourth OT by making a 40-yarder.
But Penn State’s offense got to work.
On a 4th and 1 from the Michigan 16, O’Brien went for it, even knowing that failing to convert would have meant the game.
Hackenberg gave the ball to Belton, who gained three yards and kept Penn State alive.
Four plays later, Penn State had first and goal at the two.
Bolton took it from there.
“I usually tried not to peak too much and carry out my fake, but that one, I just did. I saw him get the edge, and I was just like, ‘It’s over.’
It was over.
Final score: Penn State 43, Michigan 40.
Hackenberg ran to the middle of the field, and tried to find anybody wearing Penn State blue (not Maize and Blue).
Hackenberg started 32 games after Michigan, and with one possible exception, there was never a better win.
‘I’d say that and like the Pinstripe Bowl,” he said, “just from like a bigger picture standpoint, where the program was, those two wins really stuck out during my tenure there. So close to the sanctions, so many of those guys made really, really tough decisions, and for us to be able to be on that side of the coin and get those opportunities when nobody thought we would, it was pretty special to be a part of.”
Hackenberg had some friends staying in State College from Virginia.
Yes, they celebrated.
“We were out and about,” Hackenberg said. “We were definitely out and about. We didn’t sleep that night.”
Hackenberg did sleep two days later, and it led to him missing his only Monday meeting at Penn State.
“I credit it to the efforts after the game we all put in,” Hackenberg said with a laugh.
Penn State ended the regular season 7-5, but on a high note, beating Wisconsin on the road as four-touchdown underdogs.
Since Penn State was banned from playing in bowl games, that was the last game of the year, and it ended up being the last game of the O’Brien era.
On New Year’s Eve, he left for the Texans.
The 2013 Michigan game was undoubtedly the most thrilling O’Brien coached at Penn State, and many feel it was the signature win.
“He was a great football coach from an X’s and O’s standpoint,” Hackenberg said. “But I think his role in that time period from a mentality standpoint and the way he approached everything. Following up Joe (Paterno), following up a legend. No one runs headfirst into those types of things. Winning over the locker room, being a true players coach, he really resonated and was what the program needed at that point in time. As brief as it was, he deserves a lot of credit for keeping that shit pointed in the right direction and being the commander of it. Everyone else played their roles, but he just did a great job. It was what everyone needed, you can talk to (Michael) Mauti, you can talk to any of these guys. They’ll echo the same sentiment. Not a situation everyone wants to jump into. He did it, and I don’t think you could have put Nick Saban in there and he’d have done a better job.”
There are a million words that could describe Oct. 12, 2013 at Beaver Stadium.
Hackenberg used five that appropriately summed it up.
“It worked out for us. Took a while but it worked out for us,” he said with a laugh.