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Christian Hackenberg has gone 3 games without a TD pass

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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg has thrown four touchdown passes and six interceptions this season.

What if we told you a quarterback that NFL scouts are said to be salivating over has gone three consecutive games without throwing a touchdown pass? That's the case with Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg.

In May, NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks wrote that "NFL scouts are already salivating about his potential at the next level." And, truth be told, they're still salivating because Hackenberg has all the physical tools.

At the same time, he is struggling, with Brooks earlier this week writing that Hackenberg "has been a mild disappointment this season."

Part of that likely comes from transitioning to a different offense under a new coaching staff. Former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien was a noted quarterback guru, something that James Franklin's staff lacks. Most of Hackenberg's issues, though, come from having to do too much.

"Let's be honest: For most of this season so far, he's shouldered a lot of the offense," Franklin said of Hackenberg -- and that was before Penn State was trounced last week by Northwestern, a game in which Penn State threw the ball on 65 percent of its plays from scrimmage.

Penn State's offensive line has issues. That is obviously hampering the running game and also putting Hackenberg under siege at times. The Nittany Lions have surrendered a Big Ten-high 14 sacks, and they also are last in the Big Ten in rushing at 101.0 yards per game. Take out a win over woeful Massachusetts in which the Nittany Lions rushed for 228 yards, and that per-game average plummets to 69.3 per game. As it is, the 101.0 average would be the school's worst since at least 1950 -- which was Joe Paterno's first season as a Nittany Lions assistant.

In short, if Hackenberg -- who has four TD passes and six interceptions through five game -- doesn't produce, Penn State can't move the ball. And opposing defenses know it.

Hackenberg is averaging 39 pass attempts per game; last season, he averaged 33 -- and that was under a coach who is seen as more pass-happy than Franklin. Last season, Hackenberg attempted more than 35 passes in a game just twice; this season, that has happened four times already and three times he has attempted at least 44.

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Hackenberg is the first sophomore captain in Penn State football history, and he has been quick to criticize his own performances.

"I think I missed a couple throws," Hackenberg said after the loss to Northwestern. "Left them on the field. Those hurt a lot. Have to be able to make those. I feel like I could have rallied the troops a little more at the end. I could have done my part more."

While his production has dropped, it's obvious he has solid leadership qualities. And tight end Jesse James says it's time his teammates pick him up.

"Obviously, he should not be hit," James told reporters. "That's our core goal. We have to get to that. That's on all of us -- the tight ends, the receivers and the backs as well as the offensive line. (Receivers) have to get out of our cuts a little faster and make things a little quicker for him. I think he does a great job getting the ball out where it should be. He doesn't let it get to him."

Despite the offensive issues, Penn State -- which is off this week -- is 4-1; the Nittany Lions play a reeling Michigan team next week and still have winnable games against Maryland, Indiana, Temple and Illinois. And even a game against Ohio State offers hope because the Buckeyes' secondary is shaky. That means of their remaining seven games, the only one that truly looks out of reach is the regular-season finale against Michigan State.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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