It says a lot about how well Penn State’s offense has played this season that a 30-point performance could be cause for concern. The Nittany Lions were unable to capitalize on every one of the defense’s five turnovers in the team’s 30-13 win over Illinois Saturday afternoon.
Sophomore quarterback Drew Allar was not at the top of his game, completing only 16 of his 33 pass attempts for 208 yards and no touchdowns. The game represented his first road start in college and Penn State head coach James Franklin said there were other issues out of Allar’s control that complicated his performance.
“He kind of kept his cool,” Franklin said. “... We did have some drops that made it harder than it needed to be. We obviously didn’t have (wide receiver Harrison) Wallace (III) today. So getting him back will be important for us. But then other guys gotta step up as well. And we just kind of had some moving parts, weren’t as clean as we need to be.”
Wallace’s absence was notable for a team that had two clear-cut top receivers in him and KeAndre Lambert-Smith heading into the year.
Franklin said the team’s medical people make the decisions on availability and they didn’t feel he was ready to go. When he is cleared, his presence will be an important one and should open the door for Allar and the rest of the unit to be closer to what it was in the first two weeks than the third.
Pass rush: Penn State may have only recorded two sacks, but there’s a psychological aspect to an effective pass rush that came into play Saturday afternoon. The Nittany Lions made Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer feel them in a way that I hadn’t seen them do so far this year. Players backed it up after the game, with defensive tackle Hakeem Beamon saying they knew they were in a position to take advantage of him after a hit by defensive end Amin Vanover. Coziah Izzard’s one sack and two half sacks, which he was accompanied on by Adisa Isaac and Zuriah Fisher, let Altmyer know that it was not going to be his day, but so did the pressure he felt from the other defensive players who were constantly around him.
There will be games where that pressure manifests itself in even more hits and even more sacks, but that doesn’t have to be the case for it to be helpful. Saturday was the perfect example of how one aspect of a defense can set up the other and for Penn State that started with a group of pass rushers that were all over Illinois from the Illini’s opening offensive drive.
Pass coverage: And this is what the pass rush set up. To be clear, the coverage was also very good for Penn State. But when a quarterback is under pressure and a secondary is playing well it becomes almost impossible for an offense to succeed through the air. Johnny Dixon and Kalen King both played well in the team’s first two games this season but took another step forward against the Illini. Both stepped up and made big plays when the team needed them and so did sophomore Cam Miller. Dixon and Miller hauling in picks were a part of an elite turnover performance by the defense, but the team’s coverage when it didn’t force turnovers was just as important.
The Nittany Lion corners were able to stick to their defenders in man coverage, shielding off most of Illinois’ shots downfield. The safeties rotated in as usual, with Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed, Zakee Wheatley and K.J. Winston leading the way, in no particular order. The versatility of that group and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s ability to use them in different situations was key Saturday afternoon. Of course, it helps when you get a little help that wasn’t there for two games.
Return of Daequan Hardy: And that’s where Hardy comes in. He missed the team’s games against West Virginia and Delaware for undisclosed reasons, but made plenty of noise in his return, hauling in an interception and helping wreak havoc in coverage — whether that was in the slot or outside — along with bringing the heat as a blitzer. It’s easy now to say that Hardy was always going to impact this defense when he returned, but that was not a foregone conclusion.
Hardy was elite as a nickel corner in 2021, but 2022 was a different story. He was not the same effective player I saw the year before and I thought he took a major step back last season. He wasn’t as good in coverage and found himself on the wrong end of some catches made by opposing offenses. Saturday he looked like the 2021 version of himself and that’s only going to help push this defense forward into the conversation as one of the best in the country.
Offensive play design: I didn’t think this was a perfect play-calling game by offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, but I did think he once again designed more than a few opportunities for his playmakers in the passing game. There were a few audibles out of the T formation that put the team in position to succeed, and plenty of motion that helped free up players on crossing routes — whether it was the motion players themselves or their teammates who coverage was pulled away from.
Yurcich continues to utilize Lambert-Smith as an asset as a pass catcher but also as a distraction. For the first time this season it felt like Allar left a few plays on the table where his coordinator made the right call and his teammates executed. As he continues to elevate his game, that should only help Yurcich who will be free to do even more with the group in big games.
Replacing Harrison Wallace III: It would’ve helped the offense, though, if its second best wide receiver was available. Wallace’s absence was notable and I think it will open eyes to how important he is to the offense. Lambert-Smith has, deservedly, received the attention for his play this season but his position mate might be just as important. Wallace is arguably the team’s most consistent and reliable receiver on an every snap basis. He’s a high-level athlete, but has become a reliable target for Allar to find in crucial situations.
His absence was more glaring with how his replacements filled in. There were drops in key situations and spots where receivers may not have been in the place Allar expected them to be, leading to misfires. Wallace may not draw the buzz of other elite players, but his consistency is vital to this team’s ability to win big games. The sooner he gets back, the better.
Running game: Penn State’s rushing numbers look just fine overall with 4.1 yards per carry on 40 attempts. But those numbers mask what was mostly a struggle for Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton when they carried the ball. The issue was not just theirs — the offensive line didn’t create the lanes they usually do — but this was not either of their best efforts. Singleton struggled to find the slivers of space he usually does to cut into and break away down the field, while Allen had a hard time finding any real rushing lanes. Both are elite and there isn’t a great reason for concern long-term, but both could have played better Saturday.
As for the offensive line, right tackle Caedan Wallace did not have a banner day and neither did almost anyone who was trying to block Jer’Zhan Newton. Newton is a projected potential top 10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft for a reason and if the Illini had more talent around him, this defense would be menacing. He blew up several plays in the backfield, even when he didn’t necessarily make the tackle, and was a force whenever he was on the field.
Penalties: This hadn’t been an issue for Penn State in the first two games but there was more than one penalty that was a major head scratcher for Penn State. Twice they had a short distance for a first down and then took that opportunity away with self inflicted mistakes. The first was a personal foul on Lambert-Smith that knocked the team back from third-and-2 to third-and-17 and ultimately led to a blocked field goal and the only non-garbage time touchdown for Illinois.
The other was a third-and-2 false start by Hunter Nourzad that made it third-and-7 and led to a punt. That play was less consequential, but it doesn’t make it less unnecessary just because Illinois didn’t take advantage. That’s an area Penn State has to clean up against an elite Iowa defense next week.