Franklin smiled this spring at the memory, remembering how his sixth-year senior didn’t want the moment to end as his team closed in on a decisive victory against Pac-12 champion Utah. But Franklin was also cognizant of an opportunity for the program’s future. So Franklin called timeout with 2:30 to play and handed his offense to baby-faced backup quarterback Drew Allar, a true freshman.
It marked a symbolic quarterback transition many Penn State fans have been clamoring for. While Allar, who turned 19 in March, hasn’t been anointed the starting quarterback just yet, Franklin said this spring his staff “intentionally worked hard at trying to get him as much experience as possible” last fall with an eye on this season.
If Allar — or another contender — can play at a consistently elite level, this could be Franklin’s best team since 2016, when Penn State won the Big Ten but was left out of the College Football Playoff. Penn State’s playoff potential is a familiar storyline this time of year in State College, where Franklin is still aiming for his first CFP appearance in his 10th season as head coach. But the returning talent this year — from a deep, veteran offensive line and dependable running game to staff stability — lends credence to that potential.
In a conference that has been top-heavy with rivals Ohio State and Michigan’s seesawing supremacy, Penn State could make the East Division race one of the most entertaining and unpredictable. Penn State’s games against Ohio State and Michigan will determine whether the Nittany Lions are a serious contender in their own division, let alone the CFP.
Since Franklin arrived in Happy Valley, Penn State is a combined 4-14 (.222) against Michigan and Ohio State, compared to 45-16 (.738) against the rest of the Big Ten. There have routinely been specific shortcomings against those opponents, including in the running game, but one of the most glaring disparities has been the turnover margin. Penn State is minus-six against Ohio State and Michigan and plus-20 against the rest of the league.
The biggest issue, though, might be that it never has had the right quarterback at the right time.
“Although we’ve had some good ones here, that’s probably been the difference between us winning three New Year’s Six bowl games and getting into the playoff and winning a national championship,” Franklin said, “is having an elite quarterback that can make the plays that change games.”
This season, they might.
WHEN FRANKLIN WAS hired in 2014, Christian Hackenberg was the starting quarterback for two seasons, followed by Trace McSorley for three years and Clifford for four. They were respectable players who won more than they lost, but CFP quarterbacks have historically played at a different level. A total of 20 quarterbacks have been drafted following CFP appearances, including 12 in the first round, with six No. 1 overall picks (Alabama’s Bryce Young, LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence). Penn State’s Hackenberg was drafted in the second round, while McSorley went in the sixth and Clifford in the fifth.
A total of 23 quarterbacks have been Heisman finalists during the CFP era, and more than half of them (15) also reached a semifinal. Penn State has not had a finalist in the CFP era — though running back Saquon Barkley finished fourth in 2017 — and has only had one winner in school history: running back John Cappelletti in 1973.
While there has been a strong correlation between elite quarterback play and semifinal appearances, it also doesn’t guarantee one (See: 2022 Caleb Williams and USC; 2016 Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma; or 2016-17 Lamar Jackson).
It’s far too early to link Allar — who hasn’t even picked his major or started a game yet — with any Heisman hype. Franklin said it’s not a necessity to have a Heisman-winning quarterback, but any team looking to contend for the national title needs to have one of the best in college football.
“People have compared us to some other programs, and you get that quarterback that changes your program and all of a sudden the next quarterback comes, and the next quarterback comes, and the next quarterback comes,” he said. “Some of it is luck, and some of it is development and identification through the recruiting process.”
Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich recruited Allar, a four-star recruit and the No. 2 pocket passer in the 2022 ESPN 300. He said Allar has “far exceeded” his expectations “from a cerebral standpoint,” but also has other “elite traits.” It’s also Allar’s second season in the same offense, as this is the first time since 2019 Penn State has had both coordinators return for a second season.
“He’s hard to bring down,” Yurcich said. “You need three arms on him, at least. He can stand in there and he doesn’t need much space. Those are the elite traits that he has — the ability to be accurate with things around him, he’s got really good vision. He keeps his eyes downfield incredibly well for a young guy. He’s getting better every day with pre-snap duties, which are protection, run checks, seeing the defense.”
Clifford walked off to a roaring ovation at the Rose Bowl, but as ceremonious as it was, some critics wanted it months earlier. The calls for Allar grew louder in October after Clifford accounted for four turnovers in Penn State’s 44-31 home loss to Ohio State. The loss doomed the Nittany Lions’ chances of winning the Big Ten East after also losing at Michigan two weeks earlier.
Yurcich said Clifford gave Penn State the best chance to win last year. The staff didn’t want Clifford looking over his shoulder — or to start Allar before he was mentally ready for it.
“I think the worst thing you can do is make a knee-jerk reaction or be influenced by outside sources and not trusting the minds that are within this building,” Yurcich said. “The worst thing you can do is play a guy when he’s not fully ready. … you can ruin the confidence. That’s a huge mistake I think a lot of coaches make. When there’s pressure on a staff to play a certain guy based on outside sources — whether that’s the higher-ups, the fan base, whatever — those are pitfalls you see organizations fall into at the highest levels.”
While Franklin stayed loyal to Clifford last year, he was also methodical in finding playing time for the 6-foot-5, 242-pound Allar, who appeared in 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, the season opener against Purdue and at Michigan.
“I think what was probably pretty obvious to everybody is, he gets in the game as a true freshman against Purdue to open the season, and he’s just got a sense of poise,” Franklin said. “He’s calm. And you watch him stand in the pocket, and there’s really no panic, and I think that’s when people were like, ‘OK, this guy may be different,’ which is unusual as a true freshman on that stage.”
IT’S NAIVE TO assume that Allar or any other rookie quarterback will enter the starting lineup this fall and do what his predecessors could not — beat Ohio State and Michigan — without significant help.
Penn State appears to have it.
It starts with the offensive line led by projected top-10 tackle Olumuyiwa Fashanu and running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who became the first true freshmen teammates in Big Ten history to each have 700 or more rushing yards in a single season. Singleton (1,061 rushing yards) set a school freshman record with 12 rushing touchdowns and Allen (867 rushing yards) followed with 10.
“Neither one of them played like true freshmen,” Franklin said.
It was an eye-opening improvement that coincided with the development of the offensive line, which is perhaps the deepest and most experienced it’s been during Franklin’s tenure. At 6-foot-6, 323 pounds, Fashanu looms large even without his pads on. He played 520 snaps at left tackle last season and didn’t allow a single sack. Fashanu said he chose to return to Penn State instead of entering the NFL draft so he could begin his master’s degree in the fall, and because he felt “this year we could go a lot further than going to just the Rose Bowl.”
“We have the size and the talent, but something that’s a lot more noticeable than in years before is we have a lot of depth,” he said of the offensive line. “Last year going into every game there were probably like seven or eight guys that we could play in a game, but this year it’s looking more like 11 or 12.”
The evolution of Penn State’s running game is a critical component to the Nittany Lions’ attempt to rise from top-10 to top-four. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information research, Penn State has averaged more than a yard fewer against Michigan or Ohio State (3.27) than the rest of the Big Ten (4.28).
In 2016, when Penn State won the Big Ten but was excluded from the CFP, the selection committee could never quite forgive the Nittany Lions’ ugly 49-10 loss at Michigan. It was a flat finish to a 2-2 September that also included a Week 2 loss at Pitt.
Since 2013, Penn State has faced both Ohio State and Michigan every season and has never gone 2-0 against them, only defeating the Buckeyes once during that span. Penn State doesn’t have to go 2-0 against Ohio State and Michigan to reach the CFP, but it can’t lose ugly and it certainly can’t lose to both. The Nittany Lions are unlikely to face a ranked opponent before their Oct. 21 game at Ohio State.
“There’s a game that you win and then you see yourself in a different way, and you’ve got to win that occasion against somebody to begin to see yourself differently,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “I think that’s our next step. We have the right group of people to do it, but you have to go out there and do it.”
With a nonconference schedule that includes West Virginia, Delaware and UMass, Penn State’s strength of schedule will be an issue in the committee meeting room if PSU doesn’t win the Big Ten — especially if the one-loss Nittany Lions are being compared against a one-loss SEC team.
According to ESPN Analytics, the SEC (97%) and Big Ten (94%) are the most likely conferences to put a team in the playoff and the most likely to have multiple teams finish in the top four. Last year, Michigan finished No. 2 and Ohio State finished No. 4 heading into the playoff.
If Penn State beats Michigan at home but doesn’t win at Ohio State, the win against the Wolverines would by far be the most impressive on its schedule. Last year, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State were the only Big Ten teams ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25. Penn State would benefit from teams like Illinois, Iowa, Maryland and Michigan State playing their way into the top-25 this year.
If Penn State can finish as a one-loss Big Ten champion, it’s hard to envision the selection committee snubbing the Nittany Lions again.
And Allar said the team is driven to be better than last year’s 11-2 finish.
“We definitely want to build off that and not take a step back or be in the same place that we were last year,” Allar said. “Guys recognize that and the talent we have from top to bottom on this team is definitely some of the best in the country. [They] have that self-belief and self-confidence that we can really do this thing.”
PENN STATE CORNERBACK Kalen King, a Detroit native, grew up a Michigan fan, watching the Wolverines with his dad. He said Charles Woodson was one of his favorite players, and he loved watching reruns of old Rose Bowl games. So when the time came to actually play in one — and win — he couldn’t help but scoop up a few roses off the field from the postgame celebration as a souvenir.
“It only benefits us because now we know how to win at a high level,” he said. “We can only build on that. Since we made it that far last year, we have to be better than last year. We can’t drop off. We can’t be worse. We’ve already seen what it was to win the Rose Bowl, so now we’ve got to explore bigger and better things.”
It was as King and the Nittany Lions’ defense took the field for the final time against Utah that Franklin told Allar to warm up.
It was only one pass attempt. Only four against Purdue. Ten against Michigan. Slowly, though, they add up.
“As soon as I got into more games,” he said, “I definitely felt more comfortable going into those situations because of how well they prepared me to be in those situations.”
Penn State’s most difficult game of the regular season will be in Allar’s home state on Oct. 21 at Ohio State, where the Nittany Lions haven’t won since 2011. Franklin described Allar as an “old-school, prototypical quarterback” with a strong arm who “can make all the throws on the field.” He said Allar has more mobility than people might realize (he ran for 52 yards and one touchdown last fall on 18 carries). Allar can step up in the pocket, he said, extend plays, run through arm tackles.
But Franklin stopped short of saying Allar is the answer.
“I don’t like to make statements like that,” he said. “These guys have way too much pressure already.”
Fair. But if Penn State is going to win the Big Ten East — or at least force a three-way tie with Ohio State and Michigan — pressure is like part of the uniform, and it is as familiar as the storyline.
Penn State QB Drew Allar gives James Franklin his CFP shot