There’s a certain buzz surrounding this football season in State College, Pennsylvania.
Not the kind you’ll always find — it’s an elevated level of excitement beyond the support Penn State fans show at Beaver Stadium on any given year.
After a trip to the Rose Bowl last season, the Nittany Lions have a chance to push their success a step further in 2023 as they continue to chase their first-ever College Football Playoff appearance.
At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday on NBC and Peacock, Penn State, ranked seventh in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, kicks off its season against the West Virginia Mountaineers at home.
“This will be a really good example on week one (of) why college football is so special,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said on Tuesday.
Saturday will be the first look at a Nittany Lions team that could make the leap from good to great this season.
A big reason for all the hype?
A young, talented offense that looks like it has all the necessary pieces to take off.
“We’ve got a great tight end room, we’ve got great backs, so you want to get as much opportunity as you can when you’re playing with a loaded offense,” junior wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith said on Wednesday.
It’s not much of a secret that Penn State should have a top-notch defensive unit this season.
At all three levels of its defense, Penn State has both talent and depth. Cornerback Kalen King, linebacker Abdul Carter and defensive end Chop Robinson are some of the top players expected to shine under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
It’s the Nittany Lions’ offensive attack that has some unanswered questions.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest X-factor to answer those questions will be its new starting quarterback: 6-foot-5, 242-pound sophomore Drew Allar.
Since he committed to Penn State in March 2021, Allar’s often been labeled as the next big thing in Happy Valley. A former five-star recruit according to 247Sports, he’s the kind of talent that could transform a program.
Allar makes pinpoint throws look easy. He has a rocket for an arm. And his large frame makes him a strong, physical runner; he’s drawn plenty of Josh Allen comparisons from the Penn State faithful.
Sean Clifford, Penn State’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, no longer stands in the young quarterback’s way after being drafted in the fifth round by the Green Bay Packers this spring.
Allar’s time has come.
Over 10 games last season — mostly late in blowouts — he totaled 344 passing yards and five total touchdowns.
“I want him to continue to play like he did last year: with poise and a really good understanding of how to manage the game,” Franklin said about Allar’s first game as a starter on Saturday.
Earlier this week, both King and Franklin pointed out Allar’s impressive decision-making throughout camp. Specifically, Franklin said it took around 13 or 14 practices for the quarterback to even throw his first interception.
“He’s been really, really good,” Franklin said.
Granted, some expectations may be too high. There could be some growing pains as Allar adjusts to being the starter. But the simmering offensive potential for Penn State doesn’t fully revolve around its new starting quarterback, either.
Running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, both now sophomores, are primed to be in the conversation as college football’s top rushing duo in 2023.
As freshmen, both racked up at least 850 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, with Singleton setting a program freshman record with his 12 scores on the ground.
Singleton has flashed game-changing potential in the backfield. Allen is a physical, up-the-middle runner that could probably be a full-time back elsewhere. Together, they make a lethal duo.
The Penn State offense will certainly be leaning on its run game this season, thanks in part to an experienced offensive line.
Left tackle Olu Fashanu, widely considered one of the NFL’s top 2024 draft prospects, will lead the charge in protecting Allar this season.
Perhaps the biggest remaining puzzle of the offense will be which players emerge as Allar’s top targets in the passing game. A few top-option receivers, including Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley, have departed from the program in recent seasons.
Lambert-Smith and tight end Theo Johnson are the most clear-cut candidates to step up, both with some solid seasons in blue and white under their belt.
“I feel like I’ve put myself in a great situation to be more of an asset for our offense this year than in years past,” Johnson said on Wednesday.
No matter how the receiving group shapes up, Allar will likely have the key pieces needed to succeed.
On both sides of the ball, he’s surrounded with arguably the most deep and talented Penn State squad in years.
“With our running game, and with the weapons that we have at tight end and wide receiver, he doesn’t need to force anything,” Franklin said of Allar.
Over the last six seasons, the Nittany Lions have lost every matchup with Ohio State and are 3-3 against Michigan — a noticeable trend of coming up just short against the best-of-the-best.
“Obviously everyone’s talking about the roster that we have,” Johnson said. “But if we can just keep improving … I think by the end of the season, the results will take care of themself and we’ll be exactly where we want to be.”
Saturday could mark the start of a new era of football in Happy Valley. With an Allar-led offense, there’s hope that Penn State could finally break through against the Big Ten’s recent alphas.
Maybe it takes one more year. But these young Nittany Lions are a solid sleeper pick to build on January’s victory in Pasadena, California.
It may start with a loaded defense, but Penn State’s College Football Playoff ceiling depends on the play of its budding, vibrant offense.
About the Author
Daniel Mader is a senior at Penn State University majoring in digital/print journalism, pursuing a career in sports beat writing. He is also currently a women’s basketball and sports features reporter for The Daily Collegian. Daniel has a strong passion for both writing and sports, and he was a sports editorial intern for LNP/Lancaster Online this past summer in his hometown: Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
This content was originally published here.