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27 Random Thoughts After Penn State’s First Five Games

It wasn’t a picture perfect September for Penn State, but there’s a whole lot of promise for this program as we hit the meat of the schedule.

Iowa v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

As most expected, the Nittany Lions navigated their way through the first five games with little trouble. The Penn State offense is averaging over 40 points per game, while the defense is ranked third in the country in points given up per contest. Pretty good, right?

With the benefit of the bye week, let’s take a look back at not only the Northwestern game but the season as a whole in this week’s Random Thoughts.

1. Heading into the Northwestern game, Penn State was last in the Big Ten in scrimmage plays of 20+ yards with just nine on the season. I said I would hit the panic button if the offense didn’t look more explosive.

2. Panic button: hit. Penn State managed just three plays of 20+ yards against the Wildcats, and one of those was Beau Pribula’s “fake kneel” pass to Trey Potts that went for 30 yards.

3. I understand that it can be easy to scoff at this whole “explosive plays” thing when everything else is working. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in time of possession. They are converting on 45% of third downs; the highest rate for a James Franklin offense since 2017. They are an astounding 10-of-11 on fourth downs. They are second in the conference in red zone touchdown rate at 78.57%. Through five games, the offense still doesn’t have a turnover.

4. I can’t hammer home this point enough: those are all really good things. This is an offense that stays on schedule, puts itself in winnable situations, and executes at a higher than expected level. There’s a reason the Nittany Lions offense ranks No. 95 in the country on a yards-per-play (5.34) basis but comes in at No. 12 in points per game (40.6).

5. All that doesn’t change the fact that championship-level offenses need to *also* score with chunk plays. Michigan — a team that won’t get confused for being coach by Lincoln Riley — was second in the Big Ten in plays of 40+ yards in 2021 and was first in 2022. For plays of 20+ yards, the Wolverines were fifth in 2021 and second in 2022.

6. So when I see the argument of “Why change anything? I’d rather be able to possess the ball and control the clock,” I just want to point out: it’s not an either-or-situation. It’s about the best offenses being able to do *both* in order to win games in multiple ways.

7. At this point, we’ve seen that Penn State can put together 10+ play drives and score once its inside the 20. But other than against West Virginia on the third play of the season, we haven’t seen Penn State take the top off the defense, something it’ll need to be capable of doing to win the Big Ten.

8. I mean, there’s no reason to have someone with Drew Allar’s arm strength have the lowest depth of throw among Power Five quarterbacks; just 6.3 yards per attempt. It’s good that he has the knowledge and wherewithal to not just force things because he can throw a ball really far, but there’s going to have to be some level of risking it for the biscuit.

9. That “level of risk” is both on him and Mike Yurcich. While I think the play-calling has been a little predictable at times and I’d like to see Penn State use the whole field more (would help the running game too), there’s also a burden on Allar being he’s the one that’s throwing the ball.

10. It would be nice if the biscuit was caught when risked, though.

11. Penn State really needs Trey Wallace back. The performances from Dante Cephas and Malik McClain while Wallace has been “questionable” the last few weeks has only solidified Wallace’s role as WR2 for the Nittany Lions.

12. I understand Parker Washington wanted to go pro, but brutal for Penn State to lose a guy a year early when he ended up being a sixth round pick. I absolutely think he could have been a Day 2 guy had he come back, and man would he look good alongside KeAndre Lambert-Smith.

13. On the other side of the ball, the Penn State defense has been as good as advertised. There are just three teams holding opponents to less than 10 points per game, and the Nittany Lions are one of them.

14. The two others? Michigan and Ohio State.

15. The interesting thing with the defense so far is that while they have been elite as a unit, the individual stats for the players aren’t as gaudy as we might have expected.

16. Abdul Carter has 11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, and 1 INT on the year. If you would have told me in the preseason that that was his stat line at the end of September, I would have assumed he had a fantastic West Virginia game and then got hurt. Quiet start to the year for Stix City.

17. Kalen King still doesn’t have an interception, though he isn’t getting tested (rightfully so) that much.

18. Chop Robinson only has one sack.

19. The leader in tackles is Curtis Jacobs with 18, which equates out to just 3.6 per game.

20. Obviously, there’s some context for the lack of eye-popping stats. One, Penn State has made it a point to spread the wealth as far as snap counts go across the one-deep and two-deep. Secondly, as we talked about with the offense’s time of possession, the defense just isn’t out there a whole bunch. When they are, they generally force a punt or create a turnover pretty quickly.

21. I know it will come down to how they perform against Ohio State and Michigan, but the Nittany Lions defense is ranked No. 10 in the country in yards-allowed-per-rush (2.61). Some really good signs from Zane Durant and Coziah Izzard against Northwestern.

22. Shoutout to Alex Felkins. I love this man. He’s 7-of-9 on the season, 3-of-4 from 40-40 yards, and hasn’t missed a PAT. For what I thought the kicking game would be, he has been fantastic. Tyler Davis reincarnated, which is all I ask for from college kickers.

23. A lot of the discussion on Twitter after the game was about James Franklin running the score up because of his “fake kneel” play with Beau Pribula.

24. If you thought that was a fake kneel, please don’t procreate. You are a stupid person and we don’t need your spawns of stupidity running around this world.

25. Regardless, crying about running up the score in 2023 is such Loser Shit™ that I can’t respect you as a person. I hope Franklin calls for end arounds and flea flickers against UMass in the fourth quarter just to have these idiots cry more.

26. Slightly related to running up the score, but Penn State has covered every game dating back to the Minnesota game last October. That’s 12 games in a row, which even if Franklin is going out of his way to try to accomplish is quite impressive.

27. Let’s end with this: Penn State is very good. When you look around college football and see the warts other teams have, it’s a beautiful place to be in where we are complaining about the offense that averages 40+ points per game needing to be better. But that’s the point: Penn State is *so* close to breaking through. It’s not an easy road ahead with Ohio State and Michigan still on the schedule, but the first five games proved that all the pieces are there for this Nittany Lions squad to be a College Football Playoff contender.