Penn State couldn’t ask for a better beginning to Drew Allar’s career as a starting quarterback.

By all appearances, in just 2 starts Allar has leapfrogged Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa as the B1G’s No. 2 quarterback behind Michigan’s JJ McCarthy. And there’s a lot of season left to potentially make up that ground.

Allar is 2nd in the conference behind McCarthy with a 78.2% completion percentage and is 3rd in passer rating and yards per attempt behind McCarthy and Michigan State’s Noah Kim. He looked completely unfazed against West Virginia and Delaware.

But that was West Virginia and Delaware.

In theory, the degree of difficulty is about to go up several notches as Allar simultaneously makes his first Big Ten start and his first road start when the No. 7 Nittany Lions visit Illinois on Saturday.

If this were last year’s Illinois defense, there would be no question that’s the case.

Led by coordinator Ryan Walters and future draft picks Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown in the secondary, the Illini allowed a nation-low 12.8 points per game. The pass defense, which had a nation-leading 24 interceptions and ranked 2nd with 9 touchdowns allowed, was the best in the country.

But Walters is now the head coach at Purdue, Witherspoon a Seattle Seahawk and Brown a Philadelphia Eagle. And thus far it appears the Illini are missing them all.

A defense that locked everyone down a year ago is a shocking 106th in the country, allowing 30.1 points per game. The Illini are 95th in yards per attempt allowed (7.7) and opponent passer rating (140.59).

Should be a piece of cake for Allar then, right?

Don’t bet on it.

Not even James Franklin knows what to expect in Allar’s first road start.

“It’s hard for me to sit here and tell you what he will be like and what we will be like in these situations until we’ve been through them,” Franklin said this week. “For us, it’s ‘Do everything we possibly can to prepare as a team,’ and specifically for Drew as well. To get him as prepared as we possibly can for what it will be like to be on the road.”

But this isn’t just about hitting the road. While the Illinois defense isn’t what it was a year ago, there’s a very good chance the Illini prove stouter than we’ve seen in the first 2 weeks.

Why Illinois is still a threat

The Illini love playing a physical brand of man-to-man coverage.

As last year demonstrated, very few teams in the Big Ten West were equipped to handle it. Purdue, which does things differently on offense than the rest of the West, was the only divisional opponent to beat Illinois in 2022.

The ideal antidote to man coverage is a mobile quarterback. If pressure doesn’t get to him, it’s easier to pick up big chunks on the ground as defensive backs chase receivers around. Or to dance around until 1 of those receivers can get open.

And in their first 2 games, the Illini have faced a pair of quarterbacks who are just as inclined to take off as they are to pass.

Toledo quarterback DeQuan Finn rushed for 75 yards against Illinois. Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels only gained 24 yards on the ground, but his ability to keep plays alive contributed to his 277 passing yards.

Allar is not a statue by any means. His mobility is quite good for a pocket passer. But he’s also not Finn or Daniels as a running threat. (Ironically, backup Beau Pribula could potentially give Illinois fits. Creating a package for him in this game wouldn’t be Franklin’s worst idea.)

From a pure X’s and O’s angle, the Illinois defense is better suited to face Penn State than its previous 2 opponents. The Illini figure to do everything possible to deny KeAndre Lambert-Smith and challenge Allar to beat them using his other targets.

Of course, it helps that Allar’s 2 best targets actually line up behind him. Kansas nearly had 2 running backs hit the century mark — Devin Neal gained 120 yards and Daniel Hishaw gained 98. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are more than capable of matching or surpassing that output.

On the other hand, KU’s backs were undoubtedly helped by the stress Daniels puts on defenses as a runner. Eyes must be kept on him at all times. Allar is more than capable of scrambling for first downs, but he won’t carry the same emphasis as a runner.

Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. are still 2 of the best defensive linemen in the country. It seems inconceivable that the Illinois run defense will continue performing as badly as it has the first 2 games. Illinois is allowing 224 rushing yards per game.

We also know that Bret Bielema will have the Fighting Illini ready for Penn State.

His first team at Illinois was simply not good. But those Illini came to Happy Valley and beat the then-No. 7 Nittany Lions in an infamous 9 overtimes. (Illinois followed that up with a home loss to Rutgers the next week.)

Bielema is 3-3 all-time against Penn State, beating all 3 Nittany Lion coaches in the 21st century. However, it’s possible he hasn’t faced a Penn State quarterback as good as Allar yet.

It’s still too early in Allar’s career to definitively make that call. But we will learn more about how true that may be in his first true college test.