Penn State football: QB battle springs into the public spotlight in eventful Blue-White Game
The Penn State defense stands locked and loaded for West Virginia, while the offense will need all 20 weeks prior to the 2023 season opener to gets its act together.
That much became evident as the Blue beat the White 10-0 in the program’s spring game Saturday afternoon.
The next time the Nittany Lions take to Beaver Stadium, on Sept. 2, the game will count, the special teams will go 11-on-11 and James Franklin and OC Mike Yurcich better have settled on a starting quarterback and provided him personnel and a scheme that make sense.
Based off of Saturday’s display, the pair of 19-year-olds battling to take over for 4-year starter Sean Clifford don’t look ready for prime time. Shoot, they didn’t even look ready for whatever adjective rightly describes the 90 minutes of time the squad spent on the field to wrap up the 15-practice spring workout period.
There were extenuating circumstances, of course, for 5-star Drew Allar and 3-star Pennsylvania native Beau Pribula, both highly regarded recruits from the 2022 class. Among those circumstances:
- LT Olu Fashanu didn’t play, probably just as a precaution. The projected NFL Draft first-round pick who decided to stay in college for another year should be a full-go for the fall. But he hasn’t been in a game since suffering an injury in late October, so it would have been reassuring for fans to see him take a few reps.
- The top 2 TEs, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren, didn’t dress.
- The (unofficial) depth chart’s top 2 WRs — KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace — didn’t catch a pass. Another potential key contributor, Kent State transfer Dante Cephus, won’t the join the program until the summer.
- The teams didn’t run much, especially with top returning backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who combined for 25 yards on 10 carries. No reason to risk injury there, even in an intra-squad friendly. Those guys are known commodities coming off their strong true freshman seasons a year ago.
- The QBs could not make use of their legs, as they were ruled down at the point a tackle could possibly happen to protect them.
- Leading the White for most of the game, Pribula played at a distinct disadvantage, having to battle the Blue/first-team defense. While the offenses played basic and bland schemes, Manny Diaz’s defense sent pressure and played tight coverage on the back end.
How the QBs fared, considering …
Allar: He started slowly, misfiring on his first 2 attempts. His accuracy was often wanting, particularly when he zipped a pass right by Allen from almost point-blank range. If Allar simply gently lofts the ball to the uncovered Allen, the running back walks into the end zone. Allar’s best throw produced the game’s only touchdown. Rotating his shoulders to find his 3rd read, he hit Omari Evans in stride for a 28-yard score.
Overall, the 6-5, 242-pound Allar finished 19-of-30 for 202 yards playing exclusively with the first-team (Blue) offense. He made a couple of good run reads that would have produced solid yards in a real game. At 63% and a 130.9 QBR, it wasn’t a terrible day. But a lot of his throws were offline and/or uncatchable.
Pribula: The 6-2, 206-pound redshirt freshman out of Central York High spent most of the day running away from Abdul Carter, Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac and Dani Dennis-Sutton. Leading the second-team (White) offense against Diaz’s first unit proved next to impossible. Pribula hit on his first attempt and had his second one dropped, eventually finishing 7-of-22 for 56 yards and 1 late-game pick in his time with the White.
Crafty and mobile, Pribula has drawn comparisons to former Nittany Lion Trace McSorley, which the B1G Network reinforced on its broadcast. Pivoting and rolling to extend plays, Pribula did indeed look like the former 3-year starter who led PSU to 31 victories from 2016-18. But the rollouts just led Pribula to more of Diaz’s speedy edge defenders.
In a brief stint with the Blue offense, Pribula went 3-for-5 for 36 yards, setting up a short field goal before halftime that accounted for the final points of the game.
Where the QB race stands
Nothing has changed since the end of last season.
Allar is ahead based on playing in 10 games last season while Pribula preserved his red shirt. Allar is ahead based on being rated one of the best players in the country coming out of high school.
Again Saturday, in postgame comments, Franklin said that he loves both guys and that the competition remains open. Given that Allar didn’t look sharp, I think we have to take that at face value. Logically, we know Allar remains the frontrunner. But we’re talking about 19-year-olds here. There are no givens. One or the other might prove better at handling pressure and blossoming into a leader in the coming months. It’s possible Pribula’s playing style turns out to be a better fit with the offense.
I still feel certain Allar will take the first offensive snap when the Mountaineers visit to kick off the season. The bigger question is whether he and the offense — with its full complement of starters — will be sharper then they were Saturday. I’d like to believe PSU will have 2 reliable options under center by then, but Saturday was a reminder that young QBs take time to develop.
Other Blue-White fallout …
- Omari Evans took center stage at the receiver position, snaring 5 passes for 80 yards and the game’s lone TD. He had big-time hookups with both Allar and Pribula, and was credited with a game-high 32 yards after catch. Redshirt freshman Kaden Saunders, a touted 4-star recruit a year ago, caught 4 balls for 57 yards. Converted DB Cristian Driver had 4 catches and Florida State transfer Malik McClain had 2.
- On the o-line, while Fashanu didn’t play, LG Landon Tengwall saw plenty time in his first action since an injury last October that required surgery. Caedan Wallace, who also missed time last year, was back as the starter at RT. Top recruit J’ven Williams started for the White, seeming to indicate that the 4-star freshman is already a No. 2 on the depth chart.
- Diaz’s defense looked great at all levels. Transfer DB Duck Storm was among those blanketing receivers, though he was called for interference in the end zone once. In addition to those rushers/havoc creators mentioned above, 6-1, 275 sophomore Zane Durant showed impressive speed and agility chasing and cornering Pribula along the sideline.
- Who? Franklin twice during TV interviews referred to Dennis-Sutton as Dani Dennis-Daniels. If the sophomore edge rusher reaches his goal of becoming the program’s all-time sacks leader, maybe Franklin will have the name down by 2025 or so. Either that or the young man will have a new nickname. What’s up, Daniels?
- OL Golden Israel-Achumba not only saw action during the game, he sang the national anthem beforehand — a reminded that these amazing athletes are multi-talented beyond what happens inside the white lines.
- Alex Felkins, a senior transfer from Columbia who was first-team All-Ivy, kicked the field goal, so he perhaps is the heir apparent to Jake Pinegar as PSU looks to replace all of its kicking game specialists.
Though neither QB looked sharp, Allar and Pribula did seem poised. They were smart enough to throw the ball away when possible to avoid sacks, and the only INT came very late in the game while Pribula was in desperation mode.
The offense will look entirely different when September comes. Singleton and Allen will run the ball a lot more, and the top tight ends will be involved. Yurcich won’t be calling one basic play after another.
On the defensive side, Diaz’s defense will be way more unpredictable and lethal. The 2nd-year coordinator has the makings of one of the top defenses in the country.
There is no reason not to be bullish on these Lions. Just cross your fingers that the young QBs can keep their wits about them, dial in the accuracy and find chemistry with the pass-catchers.