Penn State football: Roster depth, young and talented, puts program in good position
I’m not going to go overboard here. Indiana is imploding as a football program, and beating the Hoosiers doesn’t prove a whole lot.
But I am nonetheless impressed with how easily, methodically and decisively Penn State handled its business Saturday in Bloomington.
I don’t think the Nittany Lions would have delivered such a performance a year ago, given the same set of circumstances. Penn State has come a long way in 12 months, and its 45-14 thrashing of Indiana is proof.
There is no way the 2021 squad could have overcome the loss of 3 starting offensive linemen and still rushed for 179 yards and limited the opposing defense to 1 sack. No way they lose 2 starting linebackers early in a game and still hold the opposition to less than 200 yards.
By Week 10 last year, Penn State was beaten down, physically and mentally.
The squad is built differently now, built not only for the long haul of this season but for the coming seasons.
Drew Allar is going to inherit a solid supporting cast when he takes over full-time at quarterback in 2023. The 5-star freshman again looked ready in his 6th appearance of the season.
Saturday’s game offered nothing but promising signs. Let’s touch on some of them.
3rd-best team in the B1G
A look around the Big Ten on Saturday revealed several solid but less deep and talented teams than Penn State hitting a late-season wall. No. 16 Illinois somehow lost at home to depleted Michigan State. Purdue fizzled out at home against previously awful Iowa. Maryland, even with Taulia Tagovailoa back at quarterback, proved no match for Wisconsin. Minnesota had to rally to edge a lousy Nebraska team.
Point being, Penn State ranks behind only Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, well above everybody else.
Like Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles, that’s like being king of the dipshits at this point. But as Samantha told the freshman: You could come back next fall as a completely normal person.
Penn State’s freshmen can come back as seriously big-time football players. They might even be able to hang with the cool kids from Columbus and Ann Arbor by then.
The Lions have 3 very winnable B1G East games remaining to prove this isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. Saturday’s beatdown of the Hoosiers — on a day when even mighty Alabama was losing its cool status — was a great start.
The o-line shuffle
Freshman Drew Shelton replaced potential NFL first-rounder Olu Fashanu at the critical left tackle spot. JUCO transfer JB Nelson played significant snaps at left guard. Both held up well, and Franklin said afterward his only hesitation in playing them was concern over their redshirt status.
Down Fashanu, LG Landon Tengwall (for a 4th straight game) and right tackle Caedan Wallace, the line didn’t miss a beat. Last year, with only 6 men in the rotation, that wouldn’t have been possible.
There will be holes to fill again next year, but Penn State at long last seems to be building enough depth to handle year-to-year transition. And the next men up are coming from the youngest guys in the room, so the dead weight will be cycling out as next year’s top 2 recruits are arriving.
And with freshman backs Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton just getting started, that could be a great combination.
Adding Allar to the mix
With Connor Bazelak dinged up, Indiana coach Tom Allen was forced out of necessity to try a backup at quarterback, and he used 3 of them before Saturday’s massacre was done.
James Franklin, on the other hand, has the luxury of giving Allar chunks of games in which he’s all but guaranteed to succeed. The 5-star from Medina, Ohio, is getting plenty of on-the-job training, and will continue to do so the rest of the season. He doesn’t have to start.
Saturday, the 6-5, 240-pound gunslinger got 5 possessions and went 9-for-12 for 75 yards and 2 TDs. On the year, he’s 27-of-43 for 284 yard and 4 TDs. With no turnovers. Indiana’s overwhelmed young backups threw 3 combined interceptions in barely more than 1 half after veteran Jack Tuttle went down on Saturday.
I expect Allar to keep getting significant snaps going forward, but I don’t begrudge Franklin chasing 11 wins with Clifford starting games. The coach found the right balance, for 1 afternoon at least.
Crazy deep defense
Starting linebackers Curtis Jacobs and Tyler Elsdon exited early, presumably with injuries. Elsdon went out after making 2 tackles, Jacobs before making any. It didn’t matter.
Reserve middle linebacker Kobe King stepped up to lead the team with 8 tackles, including 2.5 for losses. Jaylen Reed added 5 stops, and no one else had more than 3. That’s par for the course this season, as DC Manny Diaz plays so many guys — 26 players made at least 1 tackle Saturday — that no one puts up monster stats.
The Lions had 6 sacks spread among 6 players and a program-record 16 tackles for loss.
Next week vs. Maryland
Because Franklin doesn’t discuss injuries, we’ll have to wait for game time Saturday to see who mans the o-line and linebacker spots against visiting Maryland (6-3, 3-3). But Penn State won’t just be plugging in bodies. It’ll be plugging in dynamic young players capable of sustaining success in the present and the future.
Allar is just one of many youngsters who can provide a glimpse of a potentially bright future. And the present isn’t looking so bad right now, either.