PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.
Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.
"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.
Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."
This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."
Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.
"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."
Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.
There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."
This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.
The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.
Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.
You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.
"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...
"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."