First, admit it -- you've seen Mean Girls. I have. You have. Everyone has. Let's get that out of the way and just admit that we saw it, liked it, and can probably quote it, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or anything else. We'll call that fact assumed, and move on.
As the Buckeyes get ready to take on Penn State this Saturday night, I'm reminded of a scene from that movie. It goes:
That scene has been playing in my head all week. Because this is the week that the Buckeyes play Penn State, which means this is the week that all I get to hear about is Christian Hackenberg, the "super soph" of Happy Valley. And this is the week that I have to ask -- nay, demand:
We need to stop trying to make Christian Hackenberg, best quarterback in the Big Ten, a thing. Not we, so much, as Buckeye fans, but every other pundit in the Big Ten. And on ESPN. And in the world.
ESPN, in particular, though. We already know that the Worldwide Leader loves to spin grandiose, if not hyperbolic, yarns about college athletes, and a post on the WWL's Big Ten Blog pushed me over the edge. To wit, regarding Hackenberg, who is probably in line to be the Raiders' No. 1 draft pick in a few years:
The good: Going back to last season, Hackenberg has had a penchant for the comeback. In his last 13 games, he’s engineered four last-minute game-tying or game-winning drives: Illinois and Michigan in 2013 and UCF and Rutgers this season. He is widely regarded as a future first-round NFL draft pick -- if not the No. 1 pick overall-- and several Big Ten coaches have sung his praises. Michigan’s Brady Hoke and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald both said this season that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: "Obviously, we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg."
Let's break this down a little, shall we?
We start with the comebacks for which Hackenberg receives plaudits. The well-known commodities in Hackenberg's history are 2013 Illinois and 2013 Michigan. Combined, those two squads went 11-14 overall, which is actually a decent win-loss record when you consider they went 4-12 in the dreadful Big Ten. But Hackenberg beat them with last-minute drives. ersonally, I don't see this as being praise for Hackenberg, but pity for Penn State for almost losing to such inferior competition. Sure, this year's Central Florida and Rutgers are probably better victories, but after watching what Ohio State did to Rutgers, it's going to take a lot of work for Penn State to be close enough to try and comeback against the Buckeyes.
On to two guys with warm rears -- Brady Hoke and Pat Fitzgerald*. These are two coaches firmly in Hackenberg's corner. Can anyone name two worse advocates this year? First, there's Fitzgerald, he of the 3-4 Wildcats, with a bad loss to Northern Illinois on his record. In fact, the best thing Northwestern has going for them might just be that they went into Happy Valley and beat "the best quarterback in the country" 29-6. As for Brady Hoke, take every word he says with a grain of salt and a slice of Domino's Pizza, which is what he and Michigan AD Dave Brandon will be eating together in the unemployment line by season's end.
* = I know Fitzgerald probably isn't going anywhere any time soon. But this is a coach who had a team hosting both the Buckeyes and ESPN College GameDay at this time last year. What a difference that year made, huh?
But don't take my word for it, let's look at the statistics for Hackenberg, shall we? If last year was his coming-out year, then Hackenberg did just fine for himself, going 231-392, and amassing almost 3000 yards passing, while taking only 21 sacks. Add 20 scores (to just 10 INTs) to that and you have frankly an incredible line for a starting freshman quarterback at most schools in the country. Worth the hype? Sure. Certainly worth keeping an eye on the following year.
Yet here we are in that following year. Hackenberg started the year 4-0, but has looked pedestrian in the last two games, losses to Northwestern and Michigan (coached by his biggest fans, remember). So far on the year, Hackenberg is 134-227 for over 1600 yards, but only has five touchdowns to seven interceptions. If we assume Joey Bosa gets to him once or twice on Saturday night, he will already pass his total number of sacks from last year (20 so far). Last year against the Buckeyes, Hackenberg's numbers included a paltry 12-23, 112 yds, 1 TD, 2 INT game. If his current trend in stats stays the same, things could get very sad in Happy Valley.
Granted, this isn't an ideal situation for Hackenberg. His offensive line is horrible. Penn State has one of the worst rushing attacks in all of college football. His wide receivers, while talented, are all really young. Some element of regression is within reason. But if Hackenberg is as great as he was made out to be, shouldn't be able to transcend his situation a little more? And if not, well, it's not like his supporting cast is going to turn into the Alabama by the time he gradates or anything.
Now there are the intangibles that might make him seem like the next big thing in the NFL, nevermind what he does on Saturdays in Happy Valley. At 6'4, 234 lbs, he's a load, and certainly fits in the theoretical mold of a big, physical NFL quarterback. It's vaguely reminiscent of another 6'4, 230 lb, NFL-prototype quarterback who turned similar collegiate hype into a very high draft stock: Blake Bortles ... But that comparison is probably doing nobody any real favors.
So as this year's Penn State game draws closer, and as the hype ramps up, let's all do ourselves a solid and stop trying to make Christian Hackenberg, best quarterback in the Big Ten a thing. Because if we're going to heap praise on a young quarterback, it shouldn't be the one wearing blue and white -- it should probably be the one with the stats to match.