STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin’s 10th season at Penn State is underway and expectations are high for the No. 7 Nittany Lions as they begin the final season in the Big Ten’s star-studded East Division.
We’ve dissected this roster, projected the depth chart, looked at the school’s history with blue-chip quarterbacks and finally the game is nearly here.
Per the game contract obtained by The Athletic, West Virginia will be paid $250,000 for making the short trip to State College, which was agreed to in September 2013. Penn State will travel to Morgantown next year for the second and final game of this series.
Here are my three keys for the Nittany Lions on Saturday night under the lights in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State doesn’t need Allar to do it all, but he just might be able to. The Nittany Lions have made it this far without publicly naming a starter, but let’s not be fooled. Allar was slated to be the guy since he stepped on campus, and by all accounts, he’s looked sharp in the preseason. Franklin said Allar didn’t commit his first turnover until the 13th or 14th practice of camp.
“At the end of the day, I want him to continue to play like he did last year with poise and a really good understanding of how to manage the game,” Franklin said Wednesday night. “I also want him to let the plays come to him because with our running game and with the weapons that we have at tight end and at wide receiver, he doesn’t need to force anything. He doesn’t have to feel like he’s got too much on his shoulders.”
— Penn State Athletics (@GoPSUsports) August 29, 2023
Franklin is right in that this stacked roster should make life easier for a first-time starter. But Allar wasn’t recruited to manage games. There’s absolutely nothing to hold back at this point, either. Allar had last year to watch, learn and appear in 10 games. In this day and age of college football, that’s a long apprenticeship for a five-star prospect.
Allar impressed his teammates throughout the preseason.
“At the end of practice, we had the two-minute drill. He completely just, I don’t even know how to describe it,” left tackle Olu Fashanu said. “It was kind of like a perfect pass. He placed it perfectly in the hands of one of our receivers in the middle of the field. That receiver didn’t really have the best separation but the type of ball that Drew threw, he quite literally just threaded the needle. That’s the type of play that really makes you excited to block for a guy like that.”
Penn State doesn’t need Allar to throw the ball 40-plus times per game, especially not this week. But it’s important to see if that chemistry that’s been building all offseason in Holuba Hall and on the Lasch practice fields with an emerging receiving corps can carry into Beaver Stadium.
There’s a real opportunity for Penn State to set the tone and open some more eyes nationally if Allar comes out and connects on a few deep shots and shows that the Lions can balance their potent running game with a big-play passing attack.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, for the first time during his Penn State tenure, will call the game from the booth. He and Franklin both think there’s a real advantage to being there. It also speaks to how comfortable they feel with these quarterbacks that they believe the coordinator doesn’t need to be on the sidelines.
We know Penn State’s running backs want to catch more passes. I’m curious how many times the tight ends and backs are targeted in this game. Penn State feels good with wide receivers KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace III. Expect to see the receivers move around as the Lions work to figure out who is best suited for the slot.
Remember, if a third receiver isn’t their best option, they won’t hesitate to run more 12-personnel (two tight ends).
2. Get confident and settled on the O-line
For at least the past week, Penn State has operated with an understanding that projected starting left guard Landon Tengwall’s football career likely was coming to an abrupt end. Tengwall made it official and announced a medical retirement on Wednesday night.
Losing the highest-ranked recruit in the 2021 class at this juncture is a significant blow, but Penn State’s roster is better suited to withstand this loss now than in years past. JB Nelson, who Franklin says might be the team’s most physical offensive lineman, will be thrust into the starting lineup. In all likelihood, Vega Ioane will be the top backup at both guard spots while true freshman Anthony Donkoh now cracks the three-deep.
The other spot to watch is right tackle, where Drew Shelton has been competing with Caedan Wallace for the starting job. In previous years — especially early in the season — we’ve seen Penn State rotate linemen every few series or every quarter. I wonder if we see any of that at right tackle. If we don’t — or if we see Shelton for only a few series — that would be an indication that Wallace has a strong grip on the position.
Either way, this offensive line has the type of quality depth that has been missing throughout most of Franklin’s tenure.
3. Don’t let the middle of the defense hinder the rest
Penn State features one of the most talented defenses in the nation with star power at each level.
The only potential weaknesses are at defensive tackle and middle linebacker. The Lions are bigger up front — which has been a point of emphasis — and Franklin said this week they have five or six players along the interior they feel comfortable with. One of those is Coziah Izzard, who recently returned to practice and by Franklin’s estimations “looked good.” The staff should lean into that deep rotation while trying to figure out who the best four are out of that group.
At middle linebacker, has Kobe King done enough to supplant returning starter Tyler Elsdon? King has undoubtedly closed the gap that existed between the two last year and may get an extended look this week to see if he can upgrade the position.
If the middle of this defense is improved — and this game will serve as a much better barometer than next week against Delaware — it could go a long way in determining whether Penn State truly is a Playoff-caliber team.
Name to know: West Virginia wide receiver Devin Carter. The NC State transfer committed to Penn State this past winter but flipped to the Mountaineers and is expected to be a key part of their reconstructed receiving corps. Carter caught 25 passes for 406 yards and two touchdowns last season at NC State.
Don’t forget about: Rodney Gallagher III. The freshman wide receiver who starred at Laurel Highlands (Pa.) High School both as a quarterback and on the basketball court was the crown jewel of the Mountaineers’ signing class. We’ll see whether Gallagher, listed at 5 feet 10 and 160 pounds, is ready to get on the field and make an impact this early in his career.
The player we’ll be talking about on Sunday: Lambert-Smith. He’s oozing with confidence right now and it’s noticeable. In the spring, Franklin said Lambert-Smith needed to emerge as one of the best players at his position in the nation. He’s solidified the No. 1 spot and was giddy discussing his role in the offense Wednesday night after practice. Look for Penn State to move him around a lot this season.
“One of my biggest attributes is my quickness and being in the slot, me being lined up versus a safety, I feel like that’s a mismatch, honestly,” he said. “As a receiver, you want to be able to get lined up on the outside and in the slot. It allows you to stay on the field more and make more plays and get the ball more.”
Prediction: West Virginia’s offensive line might be the strength of the team, but Penn State’s depth at defensive end is impressive. Bottom line: Penn State has out-recruited West Virginia on a consistent basis and simply has the far better roster. Penn State 38, West Virginia 13
(Photo of Drew Allar: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)