Penn State's throttling of backup QB Beau Pribula doesn't do offense, or frustrated fans, any favors
James Franklin invites conspiracy theories and ill will from the Penn State faithful nearly on a weekly basis.
The 10th-year head coach was at it again Saturday, leaving fans to wonder how far he’ll go to avoid a quarterback controversy.
Of course, he can throw acting offensive coordinators Ja’Juan Seider and Ty Howle under the bus this week, just as he did Mike Yurcich last week. Or he can fall back on a win is a win, and nothing else matters. (He did more of the latter in immediate postgame comments.)
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But someone really should explain why backup quarterback Beau Pribula — pressed into duty when Drew Allar got hurt — was only allowed to throw 1 pass while playing almost the entire second half of the Nittany Lions’ 27-6 victory over Rutgers.
Was running the ball on 20 of the final 21 plays sound strategy? Sure. The Lions extended a 10-6 lead to the final 21-point margin with Pribula at the helm. Pribula’s lone pass, a 9-yard connection to tight end Tyler Warren, came 3 plays before the 6-2, 200-pound quarterback out of York, Pa., ran 1 yard for Penn State’s final score — which turned out to be the Lions’ final offensive play.
Who cares, right? No. 12 Penn State (9-2, 6-2 B1G) wins, what’s the problem?
The problem is that the program wasted another game not expanding its offense, not building confidence on that side of the ball, not preparing for the future. Over the past 2 seasons, Penn State has had 2 types of games: 1) underdog matchups vs. Ohio State and Michigan; 2) Mismatches the other way that allow room for experimentation. The team’s struggles in the former relate to its bland offensive approach to the latter.
Back to Pribula.
Yes, he is a heck of a runner. His first play Saturday was a read-option carry that he took for a career-high 39 yards. He bounced up from that jaunt down the right sideline and flexed. Sporting the No. 9 jersey, he looked a lot like Trace McSorley — the bundle of dual-threat game and moxie who produced 31 victories from 2016-18.
I know a good bit about Pribula because my brother Matt Glusco was on the coaching staff at Central York while the Panthers buzzed through all comers en route to 2 straight state playoff appearances. Pribula, the starter for those 2 seasons plus the 1 before, finished his high school career with more than 6,000 passing yards and 1,300 rushing yards. I know my brother is biased, but he’s not the only one convinced Pribula can read defenses and make all the throws.
The comparison to McSorley works, not just in the running game but in regard to the rest of what the previous No. 9 could do. Pribula, like McSorley, is a 3-star recruit slotted behind a taller, supposedly stronger-armed 5-star counterpart. And like 7 years ago, the less touted guy might be the better fit for Penn State’s offense.
The interim offensive staff could have explored that possibility in the fourth quarter Saturday, but they were content to run out the clock and move on. If Allar can’t go on Friday night at Michigan State, Pribula will be less ready than he could have been for his first start.
No knock on Drew Allar
Allar also has been a victim of poor coaching, and there’s no way to know if things will get better when Franklin brings in Yurcich’s permanent replacement. How much is Penn State willing to change its approach? How soon can it get back to developing effective receivers? Can it get back to maximizing, rather than minimizing, the abilities of RBs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen?
Allar, the 6-5, 240-pound baby-faced 19-year-old, threw for 325 yards in his first start, the season-opening 38-15 victory over West Virginia. Since then, he’s been gradually getting less effective and seemingly less confident. Saying that, he still has 21 TD throws and only 1 interception on the season. He threw for 3+ touchdowns in 5 of his first 10 starts.
He’s even been willing to run, and did so 3 times for 28 yards Saturday. The final carry, up the middle for 8 yards, knocked him out of the game. He didn’t get down soon enough, taking a big hit to his right shoulder. Based on the play and how he looked on the sideline, Allar probably left over concussion worries or because of a shoulder issue. As serious Penn State fans know, Franklin won’t clarify.
“I’m not going to get into medical stuff,” he said in a postgame media session. “That wouldn’t be appropriate for Drew or his family. I don’t see this being significant, but we will see. … It’s very hard for me to answer that question, even if I wanted to, a couple hours after it happened.”
Allar was 6-of-13 for 79 yards before exiting.
Like Pribula, Allar would be further along in his development if Penn State had used its sure victories to tinker with the offense. It could have further involved the tight ends. It could have worked the backs into the passing game more. Saquon Barkley had 54 catches for 632 yards in 2017. This year, Singleton leads the RBs with 20 for 154.
The path forward
Pribula grew up dreaming of playing at Penn State, and he arrived on campus in January 2022 — along with Allar — eager to compete and willing to wait his turn as needed. That probably still holds.
But being limited to 1 pass Saturday probably didn’t reinforce his faith. The last QB at Penn State to be treated as a running back, Will Levis, bailed to Kentucky and worked his way to the NFL. After rushing for a team-high 71 yards Saturday, Pribula has 311 yards and 5 TDs on 52 carries this season. As a passer, he’s 8-of-18 for 89 yards and 2 TDs.
It’s hard to imagine anyone on Penn State’s offense is having a lot fun this season. The dearth of established talent at WR is well documented, but the unit is otherwise loaded. But somehow Singleton and Allen are both on pace for worse rushing seasons than they had as true freshmen.
For whatever reason, Yurcich couldn’t fit a scheme to the personnel this year. At times, the approach was so bland it appeared he wasn’t trying.
In the first chance post-Yurcich to change the narrative, Franklin and his assistants gave restless fans more of the same.
Franklin has had 5 OCs in his 10 years at Penn State, and only Joe Moorhead — architect of the McSorley-Barkley years 2016-17 — truly moved the needle in a positive direction.
Franklin needs another such home run hire, and pronto. One way or the other, the offense is going to look radically different next season. It’ll be better if the scheme changes more than the personnel. Specifically, it’d be nice to see what more both the current top 2 quarterbacks, roommates Allar and Pribula, have to offer.