UMass in for a challenge against Penn State, QB Hackenberg

By Peter Cappiello

Cade Belisle/Collegian Staff
Cade Belisle/Collegian Staff

Austin Whipple, fatigued from a Massachusetts football practice that lasted over two hours, was surprised to be stopped on his way to the locker room. He had one more job to do: face his newfound popularity.

The redshirt freshman quarterback, who joined UMass this year after transferring from Penn State, has become an unwitting authority on his old team, whom the Minutemen (0-3) will visit on Saturday.

Teammates and media members both have been asking Austin to tell stories and give perspective on the Nittany Lions (3-0). He went through two rounds of interviews after practice Tuesday.

“Everyone’s asked me if the hype’s real and if they’re that good of a team and if the atmosphere is as big as it is,” Austin said. “And it is. They’re one of the two teams (Nebraska) that’s still undefeated in the Big Ten, and I don’t think that happens by chance.”

Penn State boasts a strong defensive line, anchored by tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, but the team’s star is quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the first sophomore captain in program history.

The 19-year-old threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns last season – good enough to break 12 of his school’s freshman passing records. He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Hackenberg (79-for-127) hasn’t lost his touch. He has 1082 passing yards and four touchdowns to go with two game-winning drives in his 2014 campaign.

Head coach Mark Whipple, Austin’s father, can’t help but respect Hackenberg. He met the Nittany Lions’ wunderkind when Hackenberg shared an apartment complex with Austin, and is familiar with his play.

“He’s got NFL level talent,” Mark Whipple, a former NFL quarterbacks coach, said Monday. “This guy’s going to be the first player picked in the draft in a year or two years. He’s a great kid. … He’s got all the things you’re looking for. That’s why (Penn State) will have a chance to win the Big Ten title.”

Whipple stayed starry-eyed while talking about what it will be like to face Penn State, a school still dear to him and his family. He joked that he’d prefer to be in the stands when the Nittany Lions play.

“They’re talented across the board,” Whipple said. “But I’ve been there before. It’s a great opportunity for us and I think our kids will be excited.

“They’ve got bigger, faster players than we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to win the game. You’ve got to go out and execute.”

That’s been the Minutemen’s problem lately. The winless team has blown double-figure leads in back-to-back games, which both ended in three-point losses.

UMass is a work in progress, but has shown steady improvement each week behind quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, who is 46-for-94 with five touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. The graduate student is starting to show his ability to get down field with the help of receivers, notably junior Tajae Sharpe.

Alex Kenney, a graduate student wide receiver and Penn State alum, believes the Minutemen will put up a fight against his alma mater. He called the looming matchup “strange,” but said it won’t be difficult for him to focus.

“We have an explosive offense and great athletes and a great quarterback,” Kenney said. “So if we execute, I think we can be very effective.”

Austin said UMass has quickly bounced back from its losses, but that doesn’t mean the team is content. He said losses to BC, Colorado and Vanderbilt were learning experiences.

“The team has really bought in to winning,” Austin said. “It’s not like ‘we got close against (elite teams),’ it’s ‘we should have won that game.’ We’re ready to win now, and I think that’s a big step.”

 

Peter Cappiello can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @petecapps.