COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Mike Yurcich walked along the end zone as the Penn State football team belted out the final words of the alma mater.
The offensive coordinator’s trek from the visiting coaches’ booth down to the field complete, Yurcich raised his arm and quickly sang along, maybe getting a couple of words out before making a beeline to the locker room. He’d celebrate No. 11 Penn State’s 51-15 win against Maryland behind closed doors.
James Franklin, again not wanting to look too far ahead, asked reporters for a few minutes to enjoy this win.
“I’d like to be happy for 15 minutes and then get on to the next opponent,” Franklin said.
Sorry, the clock keeps ticking: No. 3 Michigan is coming to town next Saturday. But it’s hard not to pause and recognize that this version of Penn State’s offense might have a chance in next week’s season-defining game. The Nittany Lions were both entertaining and explosive, led by a quarterback in Drew Allar who looked noticeably different.
“Days like today are huge,” tight end Theo Johnson said. “It’s something about the energy when you really impose your will on a team for 60 minutes that just gives you a different type of confidence going into your next week of preparation.”
Penn State takeaways: Lions sharp in rout of Maryland. Are they ready for Michigan?
This was the kind of showing that many have been waiting to see from Allar. Did his first interception and subsequent big-play touchdown in last week’s Indiana game help the sophomore loosen up after all?
“I think it really set in that last drive (vs. Indiana) when I went out there and was really confident in myself,” Allar said when asked what changed for him this week. “I went out there and took a couple deep breaths and kind of took in the moment instead of kind of overanalyzing things in the moment. I was able find that inner self-confidence that I’ve always had and just go out there and perform. I think that’s what triggered it for me.”
Allar completed 25-of-34 passes for 240 yards with four touchdown passes — and added 39 yards on the ground, including one rush that gained 21 yards — and looked like a more confident and poised quarterback. It helped that the receiving corps, even minus injured starter Harrison Wallace III, finally had the type of breakout performance that Allar has needed.
For so much of this season, Allar looked scared to make a mistake. He wouldn’t say it, but his play spoke volumes. Maybe some of Saturday’s success can be chalked up to playing against a beatable Maryland secondary, but regardless, Allar, the receivers and the offense as a whole came together to look like what people hoped when the season started.
Dante Cephas was hauling in the kinds of touchdowns that Penn State envisioned when the Kent State transfer committed to the Nittany Lions in January. Cephas’ six catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns felt monumental, given the offense’s clear need for more weapons to emerge. Add in another strong outing from KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who was targeted a dozen times and finished with eight catches for 95 yards, and all that’s ailed this pass game started to be washed away.
“It’s a win-win for everybody, right?” Franklin said of Cephas’ outing. “You want Dante to have the type of success that he wants to have in terms of helping our team be successful, having another guy that people have to worry about on film. It changes everything. When there’s one guy that people are concerned about, a lot of defenses can figure out a way to make that challenging. But now there’s multiple guys. Multiple tight ends, multiple receivers that are making plays. It’s a real positive.”
Penn State coaches had been waiting for Cephas and Allar to connect this way for months. When Cephas enrolled after the conclusion of spring ball, they assigned him to be lifting Allar’s lifting partner. It’s not a stretch to say this season has been tough on Cephas, who hoped to make an immediate impact but didn’t crack the starting lineup out of the gate.
Cephas would call home to his family and high school coaches in Pittsburgh seeking words of encouragement as he tried to grasp a new playbook, a new roster and a new quarterback. Teammates praised him for not letting on how difficult that must’ve been.
As Cephas was running out of real estate in the end zone on Saturday and got a foot down, he didn’t need to wait for the video replay to know he’d scored his first touchdown in a Penn State uniform. His first of two touchdowns brought with it emotion he has been waiting to feel.
“There was definitely some relief,” Cephas said. “You just always got it in the back of your mind like when is it gonna happen, when is it gonna come? But, at the same time you know, it’ll all come together if you’re a team player and you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
An early @PennStateFball lead doesn’t sound too bad. 🤩
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) November 4, 2023
What Penn State’s offense did in this compete showing — all three of the team’s tight ends again played critical roles and Kaytron Allen carried the ball 14 times for 91 yards — will also give Michigan a few more wrinkles to spend time on.
Late in the first quarter, Yurcich unveiled the Beau Pribula package. While getting Allar and his backup quarterback on the field at the same time around the goal line did factor into one touchdown (Allar completed the pass to Johnson), Franklin said even the mixed success of Pribula’s package still might create pause for the Wolverines. That’s why they waited until now to use it, even if it’s been part of every game plan this season.
“Sometimes you’re just looking for the right opportunity and time to use it,” Franklin said. “It wasn’t overly productive, but I still think it causes some issues and it causes the next opponent that we’re going to play, it’s one more thing on film that they have to deal with now. … I’m happy that we were able to get it out there and use it.”
ARE YOU SERIOUS?! 🤯@PennStateFball leads it 14-0.
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) November 4, 2023
Yurcich also dug into his bag of tricks again by having Lambert-Smith attempt a pass. While both Cephas and tight end Tyler Warren were open, Lambert-Smith’s pass to Warren didn’t deliver the big play Penn State was looking for. But again, it’s about throwing as many looks at future opponents as possible. At least Penn State, faced with as much Cover-0 as it had seen all season, was willing and able to push the ball down the field.
Still, all of this success for the offense starts with the 19-year-old at quarterback. Allar looked the part Saturday, much like he did in the season opener against West Virginia. Where this version of Allar and the offense had been in Big Ten play is anyone’s guess.
Maybe it took a loss in Columbus and a scare against the Hoosiers for the offense to respond. Whatever the reason, this group finally looks capable of putting its best foot forward against Michigan.
For one night, at least, that’s something for the Nittany Lions to celebrate.
(Top photo of Drew Allar: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)