STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Christian Hackenberg threw for 311 yards and a touchdown, and Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton each ran for a pair of scores, leading Penn State past Eastern Michigan 45-7 on Saturday.
Hackenberg went 23-of-33 and overcame a shaky start to lead Penn State (2-0) to a win in its home opener. He connected with Allen Robinson for a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that helped put the game away. He set a Penn State mark for yards passing by a freshman.
After the running game never got going in the season opener vs. Syracuse, Zwinak broke through for a pair of short scores. Belton added a 51-yard touchdown run in the fourth and had 108 yards rushing. Akeel Lynch added a 27-yard score in the fourth and also had 108 yards rushing.
Penn State’s Sam Ficken set a school record with his 14th straight field goal, a 39-yarder that closed the first half.
Eastern Michigan (1-1) scored off a fumble to avoid the shutout.
Hackenberg followed up a strong debut with another promising effort. The 18-year-old just needed time to get going. Perhaps hit with some home-field nerves, he wildly overthrew his first few attempts, and lost a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Hunter Matt for an 11-yard score.
Once he settled down, he took over.
He rebounded from the fumble to hit Robinson for a 43-yard gain down to the 8-yard line. Zwinak carried a couple of defenders on him as he stormed into the end zone for a 2-yard run that tied the game at 7.
Lost in the excitement of Hackenberg’s debut last week, was a backfield performance that had coach Bill O’Brien taking blame for the poor effort. No need for apologies after this one.
Zwinak had a 20-yard run in the third, then scored two plays later on a 7-yard burst for a 24-7 lead.
Belton had a 5-yard scoring run in the second, then charged into the end zone with an open field 51-yard burst down the middle that put the Nittany Lions’ faithful on their feet.
Penn State announced more than 92,000 fans were at Beaver Stadium, though it was far from full and there were scores of empty sections in the upper levels. O’Brien had stumped around the state asking fans to continue to support the program and fill the stadium every Saturday.
Not even the return of the 1973 undefeated team could spark a full house. Penn State honored more than 50 members of the squad that capped a perfect 12-0 season with an Orange Bowl win against LSU but failed to win the national championship.
There was a huge ovation for John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner. In a surprise move, Penn State retired his No. 22.
Missing, of course, was former coach Joe Paterno. Paterno, who died in 2012, still looms large in Happy Valley. An electronic billboard on the way to town flashed “409 Forever,” in honor of his win total.
In his second season, O’Brien seems to have won over the die-hards. He was greeted to a rousing ovation from fans who lined the entrance to the stadium. He popped off the team bus thrusting his fists and pointing at the early risers who came out to greet the team.
And the result in his second home opener was much different from a disheartening loss to Ohio last year on Labor Day weekend.
In fact, Eastern Michigan’s offense could do nothing against Penn State. A few early marches into Penn State territory came up empty and the Eagles, out of the Mid-American Conference, were flat in the second half. They mustered only 7 total yards in the third quarter.
Tyreese Russell had eight catches for 73 yards for EMU.
Ficken went 3 for 3 last week and kicked one more field goal against the Eagles to set the Nittany Lions record.