Originally found on Fox Sports:
Nov. 8, 2023 10:08 a.m. ET
As he waited a tick before responding to a question about his personal performance in Penn State’s crushing defeat to Ohio State, quarterback Drew Allar raised his eyebrows, cocked his head to the right and puffed his cheeks.
How would he describe an arresting afternoon in which the Nittany Lions’ offense finished 1-for-16 on third down and Allar himself completed just 10 of 30 passes for 118 yards before mercifully reaching the end zone on his team’s final drive? How would he summarize the inaccuracy, the panic, the general sense of uneasiness that permeated what was unquestionably the worst outing of his young career?
“I sucked,” Allar told reporters without lifting his gaze.
Last month’s undefeated showdown at Ohio Stadium was an opportunity for Penn State to finally take a chainsaw to the traditional totem pole in the Big Ten East, a division owned by Ohio State and Michigan each of the last six years. Head coach James Franklin had assembled his deepest and most dynamic roster since arriving from Vanderbilt in 2014, and the successful recruitment of Allar — a former five-star prospect who was once viewed as the top signal-caller in the country by 247Sports — became the epicenter for the program’s ongoing talent infusion. The cannon-armed, statuesque Allar represented everything the fan base wanted after four years of Sean Clifford, a grittily successful quarterback who was never quite good enough to get the Nittany Lions into the College Football Playoff.
That Allar had stumbled during his initial crack at the kind of game he was signed to win says less about his overall talent than it does the growing pains most young quarterbacks endure, especially as first-year starters. Allar rebounded by completing 45 of his next 65 passes for 450 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception in back-to-back wins over Indiana and Maryland, keeping Penn State in the mix for a trip to the Big Ten Championship game. This week presents Allar with another chance to rewrite the script and appease the masses in a titanic matchup with No. 2 Michigan, a school that — just like Penn State — waited years for head coach Jim Harbaugh to land a five-star quarterback like J.J. McCarthy and is now reaping the rewards of cautiously bringing him along.
“Their quarterback has been a differentiator for them completing almost 76% of his balls,” Franklin said in his weekly news conference. “Also has the ability to make plays with his feet [by] either running for first downs or extending plays.”
The similarities between Allar’s first two years at Penn State and McCarthy’s first two years at Michigan run deep.
Both players arrived at their respective colleges as the most ballyhooed recruit their head coaches had ever secured: Allar was the No. 4 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite for the 2022 recruiting cycle; McCarthy was the No. 5 quarterback in the 2021 recruiting cycle.
Both players saw the field sparingly as freshmen behind game-managing veterans who were good without being great: Clifford guided the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl in 2022; Cade McNamara brought the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
Both players developed into starters at times when their respective rosters were built around defense, ball control and a commitment to running the football: Penn State ranks second in the country in total defense under coordinator Manny Diaz and has leaned on tailbacks Kaytron Allen (573 yards, four TDs) and Nicholas Singleton (480 yards, seven TDs) to chew up clock and rank third nationally in time of possession (33:58 per game); Michigan finished sixth in total defense under first-year coordinator Jesse Minter in 2022 while relying on tailbacks Blake Corum (1,463 yards, 18 TDs) and Donovan Edwards (991 yards, seven TDs) to move the chains and finish fourth in time of possession (33:47 per game).
“You recall last year there was a real emphasis on, ‘Could we throw the ball? Could we throw the ball downfield?'” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “It was weekly that we address that in the press conference here. And then it got to the point where, even last year, teams were saying, ‘We’re going to stop the run, and we’re going to make J.J. McCarthy beat us.’ And we’ve seen how that has worked out.”
After McCarthy won the job following a highly scrutinized competition with McNamara, who later suffered a season-ending injury, Michigan’s co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss relied heavily on short and intermediate passes to ease the true sophomore into Big Ten play. As such, McCarthy’s average depth of target was below 9 yards per throw in four of his first five conference games, a stretch in which he threw for seven touchdowns and only two interceptions according to Pro Football Focus.
The handbrake was eventually lifted against Nebraska in Week 11 when McCarthy’s average depth of target swelled to 15.5 yards per throw. From that point forward, his average depth fell below 12.8 yards per attempt just once during the final four games of the season. He proved particularly lethal on throws that traveled between 10 and 19 yards downfield and finished the year having completed 38 of 65 such attempts (58.5%) for 613 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.
McCarthy’s ability to push the ball vertically has ascended to another level in 2023. On passes traveling between 10 and 19 yards downfield, McCarthy has completed 42 of 60 attempts (70%) for 726 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. On passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield, McCarthy has completed 23 of 38 (60.5%) for 646 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. His average depth of target this season is 10.6 yards per attempt.
“I think he’s just a more experienced player,” Franklin said. “Always been able to make plays with his feet. He’s just improved, kind of well-rounded. He’s throwing for a higher completion percentage, doing a great job protecting the football. He can extend the plays and make big-time throws.”
Numerically speaking, the same metamorphosis has yet to occur for Allar as he prepares to make the 10th start of his career this weekend. Whether it’s a conscious choice by the player himself or the carrying out of orders from Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, whose pursuit of Allar began when the quarterback was a lightly regarded three-star prospect, Allar is throwing 16.6% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage and 61.1% of his passes no deeper than 9 yards downfield. His average depth of target measures just 7.6 yards per attempt this season, which ranks tied for 54th nationally among players with at least 275 attempts, and well below Clifford’s career average of 9.4 yards per attempt from 2018-22.
“I think they definitely, definitely had training wheels on him in the Ohio State game,” one Big Ten defensive coordinator told FOX Sports. “I mean, that was honestly about as conservative of a game plan [as you can have]. And I was kind of not surprised because I think [Franklin] really trusted their defense. But it didn’t even seem like they were trying to, you know, make stuff happen.
“I think they’re pretty good. I just couldn’t really understand the game plan against Ohio State. They were just playing for that to be such a [tight game]. Almost both teams were a little bit. It’s just weird to see some of the conservativeness of the offenses compared to last year.”
But the same coordinator said he saw signs of change in Penn State’s most recent wins over Indiana and Maryland the last two weeks. In a surprisingly tight game against the Hoosiers, Allar pumped a 57-yard laser down the sideline to wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith with 1:46 remaining for what proved to be the winning score, and his average depth of target that day was a season-best 10.9 yards per attempt.
Then Allar played what the coordinator described as “by far his best performance” in a blowout of the Terrapins that featured a 73.5% completion rate, 240 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The biggest difference, according to the defensive coordinator, was a clearer intention by Penn State to push the ball downfield using the kinds of run-pass option plays Clifford had executed well the last few years.
The question now is how aggressive will Penn State be with its season on the line against Michigan.
“In these types of games,” Franklin said, “we have to show that we can manufacture yards and points against whoever we’re playing.”
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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