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Hackenberg the difference as Penn State tops Akron 21-3

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Christian Hackenberg threw for 319 yards and 3 touchdowns as Penn State overcame 3 turnovers to beat Akron 21-3 Saturday afternoon.

It wasn’t a pretty game for Penn State, but in its 2014 home opener, the team managed to get the job done.

The Nittany Lions (2-0) overcame a slow first half and used a strong defensive performance to pull away from Akron (1-1) in the second half and secure a 21-3 win over the Zips on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Heading into halftime, the Lions led just 7-0 and were forced to punt four times.

The ground game had manufactured only 23 yards, while quarterback Christian Hackenberg was 12-for-24 with an interception, one of two on the day.

The sophomore did manage a 22-yard touchdown toss to a wide open Bill Belton down the sideline for the Lions only score before the break, though.

In the second half, the Lions’ offense came to life, as a key 28-yard completion from Hackenberg to a diving Geno Lewis on a third-and-25 in the third quarter finally got the chains moving.

“[Lewis’ catch] was just one of those things where a guy made a play and you can start building on that,” Hackenberg said.

Lewis was the leading receiver for the Lions with six catches for 98 yards, while redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton had seven grabs for 69 yards.

“They’ve done a great job. They’ve made big-time plays,” Lions’ coach James Franklin said. “Typically they’re either catching the ball or getting interference calls, which should be your mentality as a receiver.”

Later in the drive, Hackenberg hit Lewis again for a 19-yard gain before hooking up with Jesse James for a 13-yard touchdown to make the score 14-3 with 2:38 remaining in the third quarter.

The score was part of James’ first multi-touchdown game of his career, as the tight end hauled in a 44-yard pass from Hackenberg in the fourth quarter to cap the Lions’ scoring.

James finished with two catches — both touchdowns — for 57 yards, while Hackenberg finished 26-of-32, throwing for 319 yards and three touchdowns along with the two interceptions.

Franklin said Hackenberg’s two interceptions, while not completely his fault, are something the signal caller needs to work on.

“I think when you have quarterbacks with really strong arms that believe in themselves, they’re going to try to make some throws that probably other quarterbacks don’t,” Franklin said. “[The interceptions] are part of the growth process. We’ll get it resolved.”

The running game also picked up in the second half with the implementation of the wildcat offense. Belton, Akeel Lynch and Zach Zwinack each took snaps from the formation, totaling 83 yards on the ground in the second half for a total of 106 yards on the afternoon.

Both Franklin and Belton said there is a lot to work on in terms of the ground game moving forward.

“We have to be more patient, I think everyone can see that,” Belton said. “At times, we get a little ahead of ourselves and think that every play has to be a home run instead of taking two or three [yards].”

Although the Lions offense sputtered at times, the defense was stifling throughout the entire contest, holding the Zips off the board in the first half, including a goal line stand leading to a missed field goal from Tom O’Leary on the opening drive of the game.

While the Zips managed to get a field goal in the second half, the defense again came up big for the Lions, stamping its performance on the day by stopping the Zips on a fourth-and-one play from the Penn State 38-yard-line in the fourth quarter.

“It was a strong-side edge blitz and we pretty much knew it was a running formation for them,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “So [Brandon Bell] just timed it up well, came off the edge and made a big stop when we needed it.”

The defensive front finished the day with four sacks of Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl.

Pohl finished the day completing 24-of-46 passes for 208 yards, while running backs Jawon Chisholm and Conor Hundley each had seven carries, tallying just 33 and 21 yards, respectively.

The Zips could not punch one into the end zone, though.

Hull, Jordan Lucas and Anthony Zettel each had a sack, while Carl Nassib and Parker Cothran combined for another. Hull also was the team leader in total tackles with 11.

“I thought we played well,” Hull said of his unit. “I think we held them under 300 yards. We just need to work on turnovers and taking the ball away to help our offense out.”

While it seemed that the offense or defense couldn’t click simultaneously, in the end, Hackenberg said the Lions made plays when they needed to in order to remain undefeated on the young season.

“We did whatever we had to do to win,” he said. “That’s something this team is very good at...I was proud of the guys as a team.”

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