STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State’s most anticipated season opener in quite some time resulted in sun-soaked skies, 110,747 fans packed into Beaver Stadium and a 38-15 win over West Virginia in Drew Allar’s first start.
Here are my initial thoughts on the No. 7 Nittany Lions’ opening victory:
• There was never any doubt, but from the moment Allar stepped off the bus, it was clear that he was the starting quarterback. Allar’s reception when announced as the starter on the video board speaks to the excitement surrounding him and this entire team. This crowd was loud throughout the game, but one of the loudest moments came when Allar was officially announced as the starter.
• KeAndre Lambert-Smith, also known as “Big Play Dre,” said he also wants to be known as the “Heartbreak Kid.” He certainly broke some hearts of West Virginia fans on his 72-yard touchdown reception on the Nittany Lions’ fourth play from scrimmage.
WELCOME TO THE DREW ALLAR ERA! #WeAre
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) September 2, 2023
That’s how you start a season with a bang. Remember the public challenge James Franklin issued to Lambert-Smith in the spring when they said they needed him to be one of the best receivers in the conference and country? Lambert-Smith had four receptions for 123 yards and scored touchdowns of 72 and 12 yards. For the second time in his career, he eclipsed 100 yards. The other game? The Rose Bowl.
• Harrison Wallace III finished with seven receptions for 72 yards, making a strong case as the No. 2 receiver. Coaches like what they have with those two, and after seeing both of them during the game, I don’t think the receiving corps is as shaky as it seemed entering the season. The top two is in good shape. What transpires behind them remains the question. Lambert-Smith and Wallace were targeted a total of 15 times by the start of the fourth quarter. The rest of the team had been targeted 12 times by that point.
• Allar’s first touchdown to Lambert-Smith was impressive, but another throw that stands out to me came with a minute left in the first half when Allar delivered a bullet to Wallace for 12 yards along the sideline. It’s a good example of Allar knowing he needed to fire the ball into that exact spot before the window closed. So many times that type of pass hangs in the air and leads to a pass breakup or an interception.
• Allar completed 21-of-29 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t picked off, though he did nearly throw an interception in the second quarter. His ability to move the pocket and throw on the run stood out to me.
• There were a couple of high snaps between Allar and Hunter Nourzad. They weren’t totally errant, but they looked too high for comfort.
• Kent State transfer Dante Cephas’ first catch and first target came with 45 seconds left in the third quarter. Cephas picked up 22 yards.
• Liam Clifford got the start at slot receiver, something that appeared increasingly likely the last couple weeks of the preseason. Penn State feels better about the depth on the outside with Lambert-Smith and Wallace. So, yes, for the fifth season opener in a row there was a Clifford starting at Penn State. His brother, former quarterback Sean Clifford, was in town for the game, setting up a nice moment for the Cliffords.
• Speaking of brothers, two Kings are now starting on the Penn State defense. Along with preseason All-American Kalen King at cornerback, Kobe King started at middle linebacker over Tyler Elsdon. Kobe King was someone who was praised by coaches throughout the offseason. He’s become more demonstrative in that role. King finished with five tackles.
• Florida State transfer wide receiver Malik McClain was on the field during the touchdown drive in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, he scored his first Penn State touchdown. McClain is someone they’re going to need to keep emerging and this was a promising start. At 6 feet 4, 206 pounds, his size offers something that the other receivers don’t. McClain finished with four receptions for 58 yards, including the 25-yard touchdown that effectively ended the game.
• Nicholas Singleton had 13 rushes for 70 yards and a touchdown, a quietly solid stat line that sneaked up on me. He didn’t break off a huge run but averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Kaytron Allen carried the ball 10 times for 51 yards with a log rush of nine yards.
• All offseason, we heard from Franklin about how this team needed leaders to emerge. Tight end Theo Johnson, one of six captains, was in the center of the team breakdown hyping up the team during warmups. Johnson certainly looks like he’s slotted into that leadership role nicely.
• Penn State used the old T-formation for the third season in a row, resulting in a 2-yard touchdown run by Singleton. It’s notable that Khalil Dinkins — who solidified himself as the No. 3 tight end this preseason — was on the field for the play.
Your favorite image of the Penn State offense, always.
TE Khalil Dinkins was in on the TD. pic.twitter.com/gTuu2s1HNu
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) September 3, 2023
• Penn State was able to get Singleton and Allen on the field together a few times. The two-back personnel could be something we see Penn State continue going to later in the season. It ran it at least twice in the first half.
• Caedan Wallace started at right tackle and at first glance appeared to have held up well. Drew Shelton was working at right tackle in the second half as they continue bringing him along. JB Nelson, who started at left guard, has been described by Franklin as maybe their most physical offensive lineman, which started to show. At one point in the first half, I looked up after a run play and saw Nelson had absolutely flattened a defender.
• What was up with Penn State’s run defense in the first half? The Mountaineers were ripping off rushes seemingly at will. Zane Durant made his first career start at defensive tackle, with Hakeem Beamon starting alongside him. Penn State rotated in Dvon Ellies early and often. The defensive tackle rotation was without Coziah Izzard. Izzard had recently been working out after missing time this preseason. He’s someone that they’re going to need in this rotation as the season develops.
• After looking shaky early, Penn State’s defense tightened up for most of the second half and held West Virginia to an average of 3.7 yards per rush for the game. The Nittany Lions finished with three sacks — one apiece from Adisa Isaac, Dom DeLuca and Abdul Carter.
• Cornerback Daequan Hardy was ruled out ahead of the game. He was in sweats on the sideline. Penn State plans to burn the redshirts of Elliot Washington and Zion Tracy, both of whom played. But without Hardy, it relied heavily on sophomore cornerback Cam Miller.
• Penn State has a serious kicking problem, and it was mostly a forgettable night for the special teams. It’s not surprising, given all the changes that are unfolding there, but figuring out who is the field goal kicker is now a massive priority. Sander Sahaydak missed a 38-yard field goal and a 34-yard field goal in the second quarter. Columbia transfer Alex Felkins made a 25-yard field goal and kicked three extra points in the second half.
So, does Franklin give Sahaydak another chance next week against Delaware? Or is it Felkins who takes the job moving forward? I’d go with the latter at this point. Based on what I saw at practices, it seemed like it was a close competition.
• Season openers are always weird. The fact that Penn State’s biggest issue after this game is with a specialist means things went OK. Allar certainly looks the part of a big-time quarterback in the making. That’s massive. Penn State knows it has two talented running backs, and the receiving corps is on much better footing after this game than it was before it. All things considered, it was a solid start to a much-hyped season.
(Photo: Matthew O’Haren / USA Today)