CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — James Franklin weaved his way along the visitors sideline intent on celebrating with Penn State’s fan base. As he’s done countless times in his head coaching career, Franklin shook hands with fans and even held up a young child for a photo.
Offensive tackle Caedan Wallace grabbed a megaphone from the cheerleading squad and started his own “We Are …” chant. Tight end Theo Johnson danced along until dutifully falling in line for the alma mater.
Clearly, they all had yet to scroll social media, had yet to see and hear the complaints that were lobbed by some fans during the first two-plus quarters in which the performance was shaky, the final score perhaps in doubt … for at least a half.
“It was a big-time win on the road,” Franklin said standing at the podium afterward. “It was beautiful to me.”
Heading home 1-0! ✔️🙌 pic.twitter.com/NvUFE3XUAp
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) September 16, 2023
I think that last sentence was dripping with sarcasm. If it wasn’t, it certainly should’ve been.
There were stretches Saturday afternoon during No. 7 Penn State’s 30-13 win at Illinois that won’t make the end-of-season highlight reel. A Drew Allar pass behind a wide receiver or two, a Malik McClain drop and two too many personal foul penalties for Franklin’s liking were part of a performance that was far from flawless.
At times in the first half it felt as though this was Penn State’s stumbling block, the memories of the nine-overtime loss to Illinois in 2021 coming back to haunt this new-look Nittany Lions team.
Same old Penn State, some of the online critics openly mocked.
And yet, with 13:13 left in the game and a 30-7 Penn State lead, backup quarterback Beau Pribula jogged on the field for mop-up duty. The worries of a stumbling block were gone, the hopes of a fan base living and breathing for a shot at a College Football Playoff berth are still alive and well. It turns out this game that once felt close was just about as lopsided as expected.
It was beautiful for Penn State, in its own perfectly imperfect kind of way.
“Not everything is going to go our way,” Allar said. “At the end of the day, we got the win and that’s all that matters. Playing on the road in the Big Ten, there are going to be a lot of gritty games, especially against the type of defense we were playing today.”
Allar, so sharp through his first two starts, seemed a bit off for most of this one, finishing with completions on 16-of-33 passes for 208 yards. He looked average when many were expecting him to take another step forward.
A Penn State run game that was expected to break loose against a talented front that had struggled against the run saw neither Nick Singleton nor Kaytron Allen eclipse 55 yards rushing.
“This is a great learning lesson for the whole offense,” Allar said. “We may not run for 300 yards or throw for 300 yards, but we’re gonna find a way to win the game.”
That’s the scary part about this Penn State team. That’s what we learned Saturday. During a game in which so much felt disjointed for this offense — when a whopping five takeaways for Manny Diaz’s defense led to 20 points — Penn State still won a Big Ten game on the road in dominant fashion. If this is what it looks like when Penn State isn’t playing great, just imagine what the ceiling should be for this team when it’s clicking.
And don’t let the final score fool you. Illinois’ second touchdown of the game came with under 5 minutes left and Penn State’s reserves on the field. The game was effectively iced with Cam Miller’s interception with 35 seconds left in the third quarter.
“People are gonna have a hard time stopping us,” Allen said. “I feel like we got more in the tank, but that’s what (Sunday) is for. Looking at the film, seeing how we can get better. Seeing what we messed up at and just try and get better and learn from this.”
Yes, every game this season will leave us all with questions about whether this team is good enough to beat Ohio State and Michigan. That’s the measuring stick. But the best programs find different ways to win. They have to. Right now, Penn State — even during a game where five of the 12 drives for the first-team offense resulted in punts and a sixth in a blocked field goal — Penn State still looks like a very good, very complete team. Don’t let 2 1/2 shaky quarters of football from the offense cloud that.
No team is going to waltz through a season without some hiccups. The 2016 team had to fall at Pitt and nearly to Minnesota until it woke up and went on a roll. The 2022 Nittany Lions played better every week after bottoming out in Ann Arbor. It’s a long season, and the fact that Penn State responded well to being in a close game, that Allar maintained his poise and stayed turnover-free was notable. How Diaz’s defense rose to the occasion after a shaky opening drive speaks to how complete this roster is.
“I didn’t learn anything today,” linebacker Abdul Carter said matter-of-factly. Carter had one of the four interceptions. The defense surrendered just 62 yards rushing, 29 of which came on Illinois’ opening drive. “I pretty much already knew what we could do. We went out there and executed at the level we can execute.”
Yes, the defense bailed the offense out, but perhaps Penn State’s most important play of the day came from third-string running back Trey Potts, who was suiting up for Minnesota this time a year ago.
Nobody saw an 11-yard touchdown pass coming from Potts to Tyler Warren late in the third quarter to break the game open. Penn State’s coaches weren’t even sure if Potts would have a role on this team when he looked into transferring in the winter. Now, the guy from Williamsport, Pa., who grew up keeping an eye on the Nittany Lions, showed that he not only has a role on this team, but that he can be counted on in key spots.
The beauty is that we don’t know how many more Potts-like players are on this young and evolving roster. How many more players are there who are waiting to step up and show the moment isn’t too big for them? I suspect there are quite a few based on how well Penn State has recruited.
Keep in mind Penn State won this game handily and did so without starting wide receiver Harrison Wallace III, who was listed as questionable on the pregame availability report. It also did so while receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith had a quiet outing, with just three catches for 23 yards. When Allar didn’t see Lambert-Smith break free down the home sideline in the first half, the receiver didn’t sulk and didn’t get in Allar’s ear.
Just like with the team, there was no meltdown, no panic. Penn State’s poise shouldn’t be ignored.
“I’m gonna have to look at the film and see what everybody else saw,” Allar said before reiterating the line that perfectly summed up Penn State’s trip to Champaign.
“At the end of the day, not everything is gonna be perfect.”
(Photo of Kaytron Allen: Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)