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Arms race between UB’s Licata, Penn State’s Hackenberg has two sides

When University at Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata was a kid, he and his buddies called their Williamsville neighborhood “Happy Valley.”

So Licata has a special sense of excitement for UB’s road trip Saturday to the real “Happy Valley,” State College, Pa., where the Bulls will play Penn State.

“We actually went to Penn State when we were younger to watch my sister play volleyball, and we all got Happy Valley T-shirts,” Licata said. “It’s always been a cool thing with us. All my buddies are going to the game. Happy Valley is invading Happy Valley. I’m sure I’m going to look back in 10 or 15 years and talk about the experience I had playing there.”

Saturday’s game is a study in contrasts at quarterback.

Licata is UB’s cool, master distributor. At 6-foot-2, he doesn’t have classic size or a cannon arm. But he has phenomenal pocket presence, accuracy and decision-making.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, meanwhile, widely is viewed as a potential top-10 NFL Draft pick next spring because of his prototypical, 6-4 physique and his big-time arm. However, Hackenberg has yet to demonstrate great feel for the position or produce big results, albeit against much tougher competition than Licata faces.

Hackenberg managed just 12 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions last season while completing only 55.8 percent of his passes. He was sacked 44 times.

In last Saturday’s season-opening, 27-10 loss at Temple, Hackenberg was sacked 10 times and completed just 11 of 25.

Penn State coach James Franklin was reluctant to put the onus on his quarterback after the game.

“We’ve got to protect him,” he said. “It starts with that. … And we’ve got to be able to run the ball consistently. It’s the same message as last year.”

UB knows that Hackenberg and the Penn State offense presents the toughest physical challenge it will face this season. The Bulls are 20-point underdogs.

Asked about Hackenberg being coveted by NFL scouts, UB coach Lance Leipold said:

“I can see why when you watch his size and how he handles himself. Even as the game didn’t go as they hoped against Temple, you see someone with maturity that handles things very well. You can see him make throws from one hash to the other sideline with a big-time arm. You can see why he’s going to be a first-round draft pick whenever he decides that time is right for him.”

Whether UB can put pressure on Hackenberg the way Temple did is questionable. Temple returned 10 defensive starters from last season and has the top-rated defense in the American Athletic Conference.

UB returns just three defensive starters from last year and is undersized in the front seven compared to Penn State.

Licata, meanwhile, will have to contend with what is considered the second- or third-best defensive team in the Big 10 Conference. Penn State ranked third in the nation in defending the run last year.

“They’re great,” Licata said. “It’s one of the better defenses I’ve ever played against. They fly around. They do a lot of different things. They have playmakers up front. Their defensive backs are athletic. It seems like every one of those guys can tackle, too.”

Licata will have at least one edge on Hackenberg on Saturday. Penn State is expected to win handily in its home opener, and Hackenberg faces increasing pressure to start looking like a top NFL prospect.

Licata faces modest expectations against such a power-conference opponent.

“It is a great opportunity to go against one of the most historic college football teams ever,” Licata said. “When you talk college football, Penn State is one of the top five or 10 programs in the country.”