4 takeaways from Penn State’s 38-14 drubbing over West Virginia

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 02: Nicholas Singleton #10 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the first half at Beaver Stadium on September 2, 2023 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 02: Nicholas Singleton #10 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the first half at Beaver Stadium on September 2, 2023 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

Penn State fans have been waiting months to see if all the preseason hype around the 2023 Nittany Lions was legitimate. Several national media members pegged this year’s squad a College Football Playoff contender and constantly noted the return of young talent on both sides of the ball and the upside of 5-star QB Drew Allar.

While Saturday night’s 38-14 victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers was far from perfect — and the first half was too close for comfort — James Franklin clearly made halftime adjustments and the Lions ramped it up for the final two quarters, dominating WVU on both sides of the ball.

This morning I wrote about the importance of Penn State beating West Virginia in a dominating fashion and not just squeak out another opening win. Franklin and company did just that.

Here are the 5 biggest things I learned after the dominating victory to start 2023:

Drew Allar is a rising star and could be the best Penn State QB in decades

Allar was the highest-ranked quarterback to ever come to State College, and on Saturday night, the sophomore showed exactly why the coaching staff and insiders have been so high on him leading the Penn State offense to new heights in 2023.

While there were a few bad throws and head-shaking moments that come with inexperience as a high-level FBS starter, I’d give Allar an A- grade in his first game as the Lions’ starting quarterback. From the opening whistle until he was pulled in the final few minutes of the game, Allar looked calm, poised, comfortable and confident.

I thought Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich would ease Allar in with a run-heavy approach to take the pressure off the first-year starter. Instead? Penn State trusted the young gun-slinger and actually called more passing plays (29) than rushing (23) when the starters were in. Allar actually had four rushing attempts himself, so it was almost a perfectly balanced attack.

Allar finished the night completing an impressive 21 of his 29 attempts for 325 yards and three touchdowns. The offense felt more dynamic and explosive when it came to throwing downfield, something Penn State has lacked for a long time. The Penn State QB connected with nine different pass-catchers — and the question marks at wide receiver were answered immediately.

On his very first drive at around the 10-minute mark of the first quarter, Allar set the tone for the night by connecting with KeAndre Lambert-Smith on a 72-yard bomb from the new starting signal caller. This wasn’t an easy play, either. Allar attempted to sell the play action, but the West Virginia defensive line didn’t fully bite on it and the pocket began to collapse. But almost as if it was second nature, Allure stepped up in the pocket and connected with Lambert-Smith while still running forward, but the ball placement was perfect.

We will get into another piece analyzing Allar’s full performance and arsenal of throws from various angles and positions, while showing consistent accuracy and command as a passer, even when rushed out of the pocket and forced to throw across his body.

Penn State fans should be thrilled about Allar’s debut. This wasn’t a bad West Virginia defense by any means, and he was far from just a “game manager.” Sure, there were mistakes and missed opportunities, but I’m not sure you could have drawn up a better initial outing for your new prized starting QB.

Keandre Lambert-Smith is the clear No. 1 X wide receiver

There was a lot of offseason speculation on who would emerge as Allar’s go-to target at the receiver position and Lambert-Smith answered that question on Saturday night. Though he only had four receptions, they were all massive game-changing catches, including two touchdowns. He finished the night with 123 receiving yards, averaging an eye-popping 30.8 per yards per grab and the two scores.

Lambert-Smith has admitted publicly he struggled early in his career to adjust to playing at the collegiate level in the Big Ten, but it’s clear he’s building off of his success late last season, which included an 88-yard touchdown catch from Sean Clifford in the Rose Bowl win over Utah, and is now comfortable as a true No.1 for the Lions.

I’m not sure if it’s creative play design from Yurcich, but it felt like Lambert-Smith was wide open throughout the night. I think it’s a combination of his growth as a route runner and student of the game as well as the defense getting confused by the bevy of weapons Penn State and Allar have at their disposal, but it appears as if Lambert-Smith as cemented himself as the No. 1 WR for 2023.

Harrison Wallace (7 catches, 72 yards), Malik McClain (4 catches, 58 yards) and even Liam Clifford (2 catches for 25 yards), proved to be reliable targets for Allar.

One of the biggest surprises was Dante Cephas — the transfer many believed would be Penn State’s No. 1 — only recorded one catch for 22 yards. He also dropped an easy touchdown on a short pass in the red zone.

Maybe Cephas gets a bigger role as he continues to learn the offense, but the Lions have plenty of options for Allar to go to and open up the passing game.


The defense will be just fine

There were times, especially in the first half, where it appeared like the West Virginia offense was going to be a problem for the Penn State defense — a group slated by many as one of the top units in the country this season. After a 37-yard pass from Garrett Greene to Devin Carter in the first quarter that helped set up a WVU touchdown, the Mountaineers failed to generate another play of more than 20 yards until under seven minutes remained.

Penn State held West Virginia to just 310 total yards on the night and an average of 4.6 yards per play. It’s clear Neal Brown didn’t have confidence in his inexperienced QB to hold up in the pocket and connect with receivers down field, so the Mountaineers took a heavy-run approach but the Penn State defensive front bent a few times, yet rarely broke.

The Nittany Lions held West Virginia to just four third down conversions of its 14 attempts, and made life difficult for Greene and the Mountaineers offense all night. There weren’t any game-changing interceptions, sack fumbles or the game-wrecking plays we’ve been accustomed to see from Penn State’s defense, but it did the job, especially in the second half.

Penn State is a College Football Playoff contender

We have speculated, ranked and guessed since the Rose Bowl win, but tonight we saw what this team could be.

I actually think Neal Brown’s team may be better than some believe, so this dominating performance will look even better at the end of the regular season.

If the Penn State offense can continue to put up points and compliment a defense loaded with talent, it looks like Allar could be the missing piece Franklin has needed to reach a College Football Playoff. I wasn’t impressed with Ohio State’s win over Indiana — and while their new signal caller Kyle McCord was okay for the Buckeyes — he didn’t have the kind of performance  Allar did. The likely Ohio State starting QB finished the 23-3 over Indiana 20-of-33 for 239 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.

Michigan took care of business in a 30-3 victory over East Carolina, but Saturday’s performance from Penn State solidified what many have believed all offseason. The 2023 Nittany Lions can beat Ohio State or Michigan — if not both. They looked like a College Football Playoff contender with a commanding win over an opponent they were expected to beat by three touchdowns.


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