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2023 Know Your Opponent: Penn State Nittany Lions

Can PSU make it to the College Football Playoff for the first time ever?

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NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Penn State at Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is still over two weeks away from starting its 2023 football season. But, in a little over a month from now, the leaves will begin turning, the weather will cool and play on the gridiron will be in full swing. That will include, of course, a date with No. 7 Penn State on Sept. 30. Below is a breakdown of one of the Big Ten’s most formidable teams, which will rumble through Ryan Field.

The Basics

Returning Production: 65% overall (55% offense, 75% defense); T-52nd

2022 Record: 11-2 (7-2 B1G, Rose Bowl champions)

Head Coach: James Franklin (10th season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and ESPN. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2023 SP+ Overall: 6th

2023 SP+ Offense: 22nd

2023 SP+ Defense: 5th

2022 Capsule

After two straight down years in State College, the Nittany Lions returned to full-fledged glory in 2022, posting their highest win total since 2019.

PSU started the year unranked, but following a gritty 35-31 win at Purdue and a trouncing of Ohio, it secured a spot in the AP Top 25 that it would not relinquish. The Nittany Lions maintained their hot start with a 41-12 domination of Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and they roared to a 5-0 record subsequent to a sloppy, rain-soaked win over Northwestern.

Reaching No. 10 in the poll, Franklin’s squad ventured to the Big House to take on No. 5 Michigan. In an early test, the Wolverines got the best of their East rivals, with UM rushing to a gaudy 418 yards and four scores en route to a 41-17 win.

Penn State bounced back against Minnesota the next week, beating the Golden Gophers handily at 45-17 in the team’s Whiteout game. But, another litmus test emerged against the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes. Despite a great battle, the Nittany Lions fell 44-31, dropping to 6-2.

From that point on, PSU did not lose a game the rest of the 2022 season, garnering wins over Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State to finish inside the top 10 and earn its first Rose Bowl trip since 2016.

Taking on No. 7 Utah in Pasadena, freshman Nicholas Singleton rumbled for 120 yards and two scores, and an efficient Sean Clifford closed out his college career with Rose Bowl MVP honors, going 16-for-21 with 279 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. PSU won its first Rose Bowl since 1994, and it left many bullish about the team’s future for 2023 and beyond.

Offensive Overview

Following 51 games played and a team-record 10,661 passing yards and 86 touchdowns, Clifford will not be under center in blue and white. With Clifford moving on to the NFL, it is widely expected that former five-star prospect Drew Allar will take the reins.

Allar played in 10 of PSU’s contests last year but threw just 60 passes, primarily in relief of Clifford or due to an injury to the starter. The sophomore from Medina, Ohio, flashed his premier arm talent, pocket mobility and athleticism in spurts last year but should have an opportunity to do so on a full-time basis in 2023.

In its backfield, Penn State boasts two of the better running backs in the conference in Singleton and Kaytron Allen, both of whom are only sophomores. The pair combined for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns, the former of which ranked second in the Big Ten — behind only Michigan’s Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards.

At receiver, PSU loses its top two options from a year ago in Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley. However, KeAndre Lambert-Smith has generated buzz entering his junior season; the wideout averaged a ridiculous 16.2 yards per catch last year, garnering 389 total yards. Additionally, transfer Dante Cephas (Kent State) should provide experience, with 2,139 total receiving yards. At tight end, the Nittany Lions saw Brenton Strange depart to the pros, but Theo Johnson proved to be a solid receiving option as a backup last year.

Along its offensive line, the Nittany Lions boast left tackle Olu Fashanu, viewed as the top O-lineman in the sport. The yet-to-be 21-year-old did not allow a sack last year, and was considered a surefire top-10 pick before electing to return to Happy Valley. In addition to returning Fashanu, PSU gets back 2022 starters Sal Wormley, Hunter Nourzad and Caedan Wallace. Yet, the team must brace the loss of veteran center Juice Scruggs.

Defensive Overview

Penn State solidified itself as one of the best defenses in the country last year. In Manny Diaz’s first year as defensive coordinator, the Nittany Lions allowed only 18.2 points per game — which was 10th-best in the country — ranked 15th in defensive EPA/play and collected 26 takeaways.

PSU’s front seven was a force to be reckoned with, totaling 321 pressures — the most in the Power Five — plus a conference-best 43 sacks. That dominance should continue in 2023, with the team bringing back sack leader Abdul Carter, Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac and Dani Dennis-Sutton.

At linebacker, Diaz retains standout Curtis Jacobs, who posted four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Jacobs and Carter will be joined by Kobe King, who earned a career-best 79.3 Pro Football Focus grade in the Rose Bowl.

PSU will lose Joey Porter Jr. in its secondary, who went 32nd overall in this year’s NFL Draft, plus longtime playmaker Ji’Ayir Brown at safety. However, there’s no shortage of talent for Diaz in the back-end. Cornerback Kalen King has been touted as a preseason first-round pick, and was named to the Bednarik and Thorpe Award watch list. Moreover, corner Johnny Dixon, safety Keaton Ellis and safety Jaylen Reed provide experience, each having played 390+ snaps a year ago.

Ultimately, five of PSU’s projected starters on defense were named to PFF’s preseason All-Big Ten list, and that’s not a coincidence. The unit figures to be one of the most formidable in the nation for a second straight year.

Three Players to Watch

QB Drew Allar

2023 will undoubtedly provide a changing of the guard for Penn State’s offense without Clifford under center. However, that modification could actually prove to be an upgrade. While Clifford was a sage veteran for Franklin, having just a 2.2% Turnover-Worthy Play mark in 2022 — tied for 16th-best among QBs to throw 300 or more times last year — he also arguably left points on the field.

Throughout last year, fans had clamored to see Allar’s talent, especially following miscues or errant throws by Clifford. The most snaps that Allar played in a game was 31 against Indiana, but it was easy to glean his potential and poise in a limited window.

Allar, ranked the 13th-best recruit in PSU history by 247 Sports, can legitimately take the Nittany Lions from a stellar team to one contending for the national championship. Having a blue-chip quarterback has tended to align with teams winning the College Football Playoff, and Penn State should boast just that in the sophomore.

EDGE Chop Robinson

Robinson has drawn considerable hype before this year, if for nothing but his rugged, old-school gameday look with no accoutrements — including no gloves. The Maryland transfer paced the Nittany Lions with 48 pressures a year ago, and he collected 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

What fuels Robinson’s on-field success is his outrageous athleticism. Robinson ranked ninth on Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks List, reportedly running a 4.47 40-yard dash and broad jumping 10 feet, 7 inches at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds.

Expect Robinson to be the best edge rusher in the Big Ten for a second straight season, and to pair with defensive cornerstone King to make plays for the Nittany Lions when they need them most.

WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith

As mentioned earlier, Lambert-Smith was effectively fourth on Clifford’s receiving pecking order last year. However, without Washington playing in the Rose Bowl, Lambert-Smith put his skill on full display. No. 1 led the victorious Nittany Lions with 124 receiving yards, including an 88-yard touchdown strike to begin the fourth quarter — which was the longest touchdown pass in the fabled history of the game.

Lambert-Smith has looked the part of a top wideout in offseason workouts, with Franklin saying, “We need him to be the guy, like a true No. 1, not just at Penn State but really in the conference.” If the Nittany Lions want to achieve their CFP-clad goals, they’ll need the former four-star to emerge in full force this year.