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Column: A player to build on

Five overtimes, 222 points allowed, 16 giveaways, 55 Allen Robinson catches and a 20-point loss in Bloomington later, the Penn State Nittany Lions are five up and three down, the same as they were in 2012.

Hackenberg was all smiles after another overtime victory.

Still holding on?

Bill O'Brien's initial Penn State team, led by a willful senior class, took us on quite a ride last season. His second squad, light on seniors, heavy on run-ons and stubborn as mules, has thrilled, tantalized and tortured its fans (and, no doubt, its coaches) -- sometimes all on the same play. And though the record is the same, it's hard to say the caliber of football the Nittany Lions have played this season -- particularly since they started Big Ten play -- measures up to the strong standard they set in 2012.

On Saturday, Penn State handed a team whose last conference win came on Oct. 8, 2011 abundant opportunities to break that streak, squandering all of an early 14-point lead, failing to capitalize on numerous chances to win the game in the fourth quarter and then, suddenly, pulling a quick pair of clutch plays to slam the door in overtime. A rather defiant O'Brien said afterward he did not feel fortunate to win the game, but several of his coaching peers might have felt otherwise, and when he looks at the game film, he is going to see a team that, two-thirds of the way through the season, is still taking a step backward for every one it steps forward.

But when you play 55 guys in a seven-point came and just 42 of them came to Penn State on scholarship, when 27 of that 55 are underclassmen and the guy with the ball in his hands every play has played two months of college football, there are going to be some grinded gears. Whether or not the Nittany Lions will wrap up the 2013 campaign as a more polished collective product than they began the season remains to be seen.

They should be better for it going forward, though, because of the tall kid with the moppy haircut and the weight of a program on his banged-up shoulder.

What bothered Penn State fans most about Saturday's win -- and this is what had O'Brien so irked after the game, the knowledge that some people will be upset about a win -- was that it came against a team that, because of both its talent and the way it played (honestly, could Illinois have been more Illinois on Saturday? At least hoops season is about to start in Champaign), would have been blown out of the stadium by a good Big Ten team, much the way Penn State blew Tim Beckman's team out of its own stadium last year.

But Penn State is not a good Big Ten team right now. Whether you want to qualify it as "mediocre," or "average" or "decent" is up to you, but the fact is that it's the kind of team that will get rocked against the conference's top dog and hang around in games against the kind of foes (Indiana and Illinois) it would have had little trouble disposing of through most of its history as a conference member.

What this average team has going for it right now, though, besides an impressive "It ain't over til we say it is" attitude that seems to permeate the entire squad, is a freshman quarterback who is taking his lumps but getting the invaluable experience -- not just the number of reps but the exposure to so many different situations -- he will need to lead this team to greater things in the future, whether that's in a few weeks in Madison or in 2014 or 2015.

"I would say he's improved every week, making some big throws down the stretch," Robinson said of Christian Hackenberg. "Him going with his reads and being confident in himself. He's continuing to work in practice and continuing to get better."

Hackenberg has not been able to maintain the otherworldly 71 percent completion rate he set during the season's first three games; in fact, Saturday was the first time he had topped 55 percent since the Central Florida game. His mechanics have been inconsistent, his accuracy sometimes spotty and he's made some not very good reads -- all things you would expect from a true freshman playing the most important and complex position on the field.

Those are all things that can be coached up, however. The things that can't be are what set the great ones apart from the merely good, and Hackenberg, between the overthrows and the sacks taken, has shown he has the kind of "uncoachables" that can make a decent team good and a good team great.

You can coach footwork; you can't coach the touch Hackenberg showed on the brilliant fade to Brandon Felder that should have been six. You can coach a quarterback to scramble; you can't coach the nose for the goal-line he showed on his early touchdown run. You can coach a quarterback on what to do in two-minute situations; you can't coach the poise Hackenberg continues to show when they actually arise on Saturdays.

"Those are the type of situations that we sort of live for and are confident in," he said. "So the offensive line, we're confident, the receivers, and I was pretty confident in the play call."

That play call was the strike to Kyle Carter that would account for the final score of the game. It's a play O'Brien imported from his days in New England and it's a play he loves because of the options it gives the quarterback. But when a quarterback has only 15 yards of field and 10 yards of end zone to work with, it doesn't matter how many options he has; he has to be able to deliver an accurate throw. It's a throw that must be made with confidence, and that confidence might be the best tool in Hackenberg's growing belt right now.

"It looked good and I felt confident," he said. "So I thought, 'What the heck?'"

The Nittany Lions will likely continue to produce as many plays that turn the stomach as those that quicken the pulse. Their young quarterback will continue to learn from both kinds, so that one day, he'll have his team in position to make a clutch play against a team like Ohio State.

And better yet, have his team in position that it won't need a clutch play against a team like Illinois.

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