Penn State football: The pressure is on as the Drew Allar era begins in prime time on Saturday night
It’s the most anticipated late summer performance by a baby-faced 19-year-old in State College since Taylor Swift sold out the Bryce Jordan Center in 2009.
Drew Allar goes front and (under) center as starting quarterback for Penn State for the first time Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, looking to rock a house that’ll hold 7 times more admirers than Swift’s venue could accommodate.
Like the adored singer back then, Allar arrives at this moment already much-hyped despite being just a couple years out of high school.
A 5-star recruit in the 2022 class, Allar goes from understudy to lead against 20.5-point underdog West Virginia. He’s far from the lone attraction for the No. 7 Nittany Lions, but he will draw the most eyeballs.
Listed at 6-5, 243 on the team’s latest roster update, Allar can’t help but stand out. For fans, the excitement will be blended with worry and curiosity. Study college football history, and it’s easy to uncover plenty of can’t-miss prodigies who flamed out all the same. No red flags emerged from Allar’s 10 cameo appearances last season behind Sean Clifford, yet questions remain:
- Can he handle the stage?
- If he’s not the running threat that predecessors Trace McSorley and Clifford were, does he fit in the offense?
- Can 3rd-year coordinator Mike Yurcich make sure the offense fits him?
- Does he have enough quality targets? The receiving ensemble, far and away, is Penn State’s least proven position group coming out of August camp.
Does Allar have the answers?
In an attempt to quell fears, I’ll take you back to a season-opening game under the lights in West Lafayette, Indiana, a year ago. As you may recall, Clifford cramped up and spent some time in the locker room as the second half began vs. Purdue. Enter Allar, an 18-year-old in his first game day as a college athlete.
After 1 handoff, Allar hit KeAndre Lambert-Smith for 11 yards. Then he hit Mitchell Tinsley for 15. Two throws, 2 first downs. After another short-gain running play, he put the ball perfectly into Tyler Warren’s hands. But the tight end dropped the ball. The drive fizzled, and Clifford returned for the next one. Whether Allar can deliver game in and game out remains debatable. But any questions about physical skills and poise were answered right then and there.
For the season, Allar went 35-of-60 (58.3%) for 334 yards and 4 TDs while burning his redshirt. He ran 18 times for 52 yards and a score, and also moved well enough in the pocket to buy time before delivering strikes. A Week 2 play against Ohio epitomizes his top-end abilities. He worked upstream in the pocket, powering through would-be ankle tackles, then delivered a 28-yard TD to TE Khalil Dinkins.
Dealing with jitters
Nerves are likely to be Allar’s biggest issue against the Mountaineers, as one of the largest home-opening crowds ever is expected to jam into Beaver Stadium. Tickets on re-sale sites were going for $120 and up — way, way up — a week before game day. (For comparison’s sake, tix to Week 2 vs. Delaware can be had for $30.)
“There’s really no way to prepare our guys for that, especially the guys who haven’t experienced it before,” head coach James Franklin said at Tuesday’s media session, where he again declined to confirm who will start at quarterback Saturday night.
The record crowd for a home opener is 109,313, set in 2001 for a 33-7 loss to Miami the first time stadium expansion made 100,000+ crowds possible at the now 63-year-old venue. The largest home-opening crowd of the Franklin era is the 107,306 who watched last year’s 46-10 victory over Ohio. Those who stuck around till the end saw Allar’s first 2 career TD passes as a Nittany Lion.
A lot more is at stake for Allar in this home opener, but some mitigating factors should ease his tension:
- Unlike the program’s previous 5-star QB, Christian Hackenberg (2013-15), Allar inherits a strong line and running game with 2 standout talents sharing the backfield. He won’t have to throw as much as Hackenberg initially and won’t be taking nearly as many sacks. And while Hackenberg took the reins immediately, Allar has had 20 months of prep time since arriving on campus as an early enrollee in January of 2022.
- West Virginia ranked 116th in scoring defense last year and doesn’t appear to have improved dramatically, if at all.
What’s the backup plan?
Trade in your jokes about Clifford collecting Social Security checks for ones about not needing to shave and being too young to drink legally.
Allar’s spring and August challenger for the starting job, Beau Pribula, is the lone QB among 5 on the roster who is no longer a teenager. He recently turned 20. The group has a combined zero college starts, and only Allar has taken a snap in a college game. Is this the youngest QB room in the nation? Other than Allar, they’re all freshmen, with only Pribula of the redshirt variety.
Franklin insists the starting job has been open since Clifford left, and hasn’t officially named Allar as the No. 1. Followers and media members don’t buy that, but it at least suggests Pribula might be capable of stepping up if needed.
Jaxon Smolik, a 3-star true freshman, has drawn profusive praise from Franklin in recent weeks. As the only other scholarship QB on the roster, he’s clearly the No. 3. Jack Lambert from North Carolina and Karson Kiesewetter from Bishop Guilfoyle in Altoona round out the group.
Things will get dicey in a hurry if Allar misses time, and perhaps catastrophic if any of the true freshmen need to be called upon.
Game 1 best-case scenario
Ideally, Allar can ease into the job behind a strong ground game. That’ll set up play-action and get him rolling. Backs and tight ends should be heavily involved as the receiver rotation works itself out.
Prediction: He completes better than 60 percent of his passes for 200+ yards with no turnovers. The ground game racks up another 200+ yards and Penn State rolls 42-10. Pribula gets some snaps. Allar and Nittany Nation exhale, and it’s on to Week 2 and a visit from the Blue Hens of Delaware.