STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — KeAndre Lambert-Smith turned around down the field and saw Drew Allar scrambling. The wide receiver knew there was a defender in his periphery, but as soon as Allar picked his head up, Lambert-Smith locked eyes with his quarterback.
“It was a quick second, and I’m, ‘Like throw it!’” Lambert-Smith said Saturday night following No. 7 Penn State’s 38-15 season-opening rout of West Virginia.
Allar didn’t just throw the ball as much as he delivered it on a rope. And, Lambert-Smith didn’t just have an explosive play but rather turned Allar’s pass into a 72-yard touchdown that sent the home crowd into a frenzy. Penn State’s sideline had the same reaction as Allar celebrated at midfield.
“I was like, ‘Dang!’” said running back Nick Singleton, who ran into the flat and turned to see Allar uncork the pass. “I was like, ‘Wow, Drew.’”
Saturday night was the start of Penn State’s highly anticipated season, and the Nittany Lions’ prized quarterback owned the moment. The sophomore who stepped off his blue bus first and paraded down Curtin Road two hours before kickoff didn’t look like a quarterback who was making his first collegiate start. Allar, who completed 21-of-29 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns, showed the traits like that big arm that had intrigued offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich years ago on the recruiting trail. Allar is the first Penn State quarterback to throw for 300-plus yards in his first career start since Michael Robinson did so against Wisconsin in 2003.
The ball looks noticeably different coming out of Allar’s hand. It’s the zip on his passes like the one he delivered to Harrison Wallace III along the sideline, that sprinkling of stardust that has this team and this fanbase believing the five-star quarterback is everything they hope and need him to be. This night was as much about starting the season as it was about cracking open Penn State’s College Football Playoff window with the rosy-cheeked quarterback at the helm. Yes, it’s only one game, but under the bright lights, Allar certainly looked like the real deal.
“He’s been doing it all spring, all camp,” Singleton said. “Everybody couldn’t wait for him to be out on Beaver Stadium. I wasn’t surprised by him.”
Behind closed doors this preseason, Allar said there never was a moment when James Franklin told him point-blank that he was the starter. It was assumed all last season as Allar backed up Sean Clifford that he was next in line. During the past week as Allar continued repping with the first team, he said Yurcich communicated to him that he was indeed the starter. Saturday night, Yurcich was upstairs in the booth, communicating with Allar, who teammates said did a nice job taking command of the offense and the huddle.
“This is exactly what we expected out of Drew,” guard Sal Wormley said. “Seeing him make the same throws in practice like he did in games, everything he did is exactly what we expected.”
As Allar’s face flashed across the stadium’s video board 30 minutes before kickoff and he was announced as the starter, the crowd let out one of its loudest roars of the night. Many fans are already sporting jerseys and T-shirts with Allar’s number on them.
“That’s the Drew that we saw in preseason camp,” Franklin said. “To be honest with you, that’s the Drew we saw in limited reps last year in terms of when he got into games and did some really good things, made some really good plays and was confident.”
What we learned about Penn State, Drew Allar in solid start to much-hyped season
West Virginia loaded the box to try and throw as much as it could at Allar, who didn’t turn the ball over — an equally important detail of this night. Allar nearly was picked off in the end zone on a pass intended for Lambert-Smith. It’s the kind of throw the staff will evaluate it like a pick, Franklin said. Allar wanted that ball back, and with better location Lambert-Smith’s own coming-out party with four catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns would’ve included a third score.
“If I put it high and away there or up top like we always talk about, it’s either him coming down with another touchdown, or it’s an incomplete pass,” Allar said. “I put it in harms way there. He definitely saved me making a nice play on the ball breaking it up for me.”
There’s a real rapport that seems to be emerging between Allar and a receiving corps that is determined to not be the group that holds back an otherwise loaded offense. Lambert-Smith and Wallace, the latter who finished with a team-high seven receptions for 72 yards, showed that they’re more than capable playmakers.
Florida State transfer Malik McClain, a 6-foot-4 receiver teammates kept saying would find a way to help this offense, caught four passes for 58 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown from Allar that effectively ended the game midway through the fourth quarter. Nine players caught passes, a number that sat well with Franklin as he glanced at the stat sheet.
“We showed the offense that the receivers are dependable; we’re not just a run-heavy team,” Lambert-Smith said.
Inevitably, there will be games this season when Penn State’s loaded backfield with Singleton and Kaytron Allen will need to carry the load to grind the clock and pick up tough yards. There will be games when this new-look receiving corps will need its complementary pieces to step into the spotlight as that next tier behind Wallace and Lambert-Smith continues developing and emerging. Penn State will go back to the T formation as it did for Singleton’s 2-yard rushing touchdown and in doing so gets all three tight ends on the field.
For as talented and as deep as this offense is, none of it matters if the quarterback can’t lead the way but also step up and make those handfuls of special plays. It’s those elite throws, the jaw-dropping moments that Allar brings to the table.
As Allar worked his way around the field after the game, fans already were screaming his name, and kids waiting in the tunnel to catch a glimpse of him. He threw wristbands their way as he headed toward the locker room. Yurcich was giddy too, standing arm in arm with a few tight ends as they all sang the alma mater in front of the student section.
Surely he too knows this was a starting debut that went exceptionally well.
“It’s really rewarding,” Allar said of his performance. “As a quarterback, the only stats I really care about are the wins at the end of the day. To beat a team like West Virginia at home in a great environment was definitely really cool, especially being my first start.”
(Top photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)