Inexperienced QB, conditioning will be important vs. Syracuse

Christian Hackenberg will start at quarterback for Penn State in today’s season opener against Syracuse, according to an ESPN report Friday, so the prized freshman will have a chance to make an immediate impact as he begins his college career.

While Hackenberg’s play is clearly the biggest storyline, here are five other things to look for as the Nittany Lions open the season against traditional Eastern rival Syracuse.

No. 1: Fresh legs

Syracuse isn’t some lightweight Division I-AA season-opening opponent that Penn State will manhandle physically at positions across the field. The Orange have struggled for most of the past decade, but they do have similar size, speed and strength as PSU, plus they’ve got more depth and should be able to rotate more game-ready players in and out.

Temperatures will be in the upper 80s, so fatigue could be a big factor. We hear all the time about Penn State’s strength and conditioning program, led by Craig Fitzgerald, and the squad has a chance to showcase it today.

Are the Lions ready for the physical rigors of a game like this after spending training camp hitting less and doing mostly thud drills? The guess here is yes, but that’s not a given against an opponent that’s capable of delivering big hits of its own.

No. 2: Lots of weapons

The Lions appear to have far too much firepower on offense for the Orange to keep up. Even if the two PSU quarterbacks have mediocre days and just serve as game managers with handoffs to Zach Zwinak and throws to the tight ends and Allen Robinson, that should be enough for the Lions to score a lot of points.

No. 3: Limit mistakes

The fatigue issue mentioned above is one way Penn State could lose, and another way is if the team beats itself with turnovers, lots of penalties, sloppy play or poor special teams.

Penn State’s best players are better than Syracuse’s best players. But if Hackenberg gets tricked by coverages and tosses some interceptions or can’t hit open targets, or if Zwinak’s fumble issues return, or if Sam Ficken misses some field goals, then Syracuse easily could come out with a victory.

No. 4: PSU’s front seven

It has long been a strength of the program, but that’s not the case this year. The middle of the defensive line needs to prove it can stuff the run, and the three starting linebackers have to stay healthy because there’s very little experience behind them.

The linebackers, in particular, will have their conditioning put to the test and will have to continue to play well despite being on the field for pretty much all defensive snaps.

No. 5: Player to watch

All Penn State fans will be focused on Hackenberg, but Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen is an intriguing story. He’s a senior who transferred from Oklahoma, so you know he received good coaching there. But he’s in a tough competition with Terrel Hunt, and the starter won’t be named until today.

Allen is more of a pocket passer who can beat PSU with his arm, while Hunt is a bigger threat running. Both will play, although it would seem the Orange have a better chance to win with Allen.

Prediction: PSU 30-20.