Penn State cornerback Johnny Dixon smiled as he recounted what happened on his near interception with 5:51 left in the third quarter during the Nittany Lions’ 38-15 win over West Virginia Saturday night.
“I saw it,” Dixon said. “I could have been better with my body position and just slowed down and went straight up and caught it. I was fading a little bit when I tried to grab it. He tried to jump through me. He ended up turning into the (defensive back). It was a good play by him because he stopped me from intercepting it.”
Dixon, like most of the Penn State secondary, wasn’t challenged all that much in the game. Sure, there was the coverage breakdown where West Virginia wide receiver Devin Carter broke free down the sideline for a big gain that led to the Mountaineers’ first quarter touchdown. But outside of that, there wasn’t much to point to in terms of down the field success for WVU.
Instead, Dixon and his teammates locked down their spots and forced West Virginia quarterback Garrett Greene to make plays with his legs and throw on the run when situations broke down.
Dixon knew, however, that the Mountaineers would eventually start having to throw the ball and that time came in the second half.
“You gotta be patient. They gotta throw it at some point,” he said with a laugh. “Especially if they’re losing. You’ve got to be patient and play defense.”
Once that happened the Nittany Lion lead only broadened and it eventually helped the team close out the victory in a night filled with reasons for hope for what this season could be.
Drew Allar: It felt like it was going to be impossible for Allar to live up to the expectations he was facing entering Saturday night’s game. Someway, somehow, he was even better. The numbers — 21-of-29, 325 yards with three touchdowns — were impressive but even they don’t tell the full story. Allar’s ability to navigate the pocket was a stark contrast from Penn State quarterbacks in years past. He felt pressure but never panicked, moving his feet deftly between oncoming defenders and his own linemen to find space — keeping his eyes downfield in search of an open receiver.
It wasn’t all perfect, with Allar throwing a ball that should’ve been intercepted but was dropped by a defender and missing an open KeAndre Lambert-Smith with a ball that was low and behind him ever so slightly that would’ve led to a touchdown. But it almost was and that says all you need to know about how good the sophomore quarterback was. He had as good of a starting debut as anyone could have hoped and did nothing to slow the hype on just how good he can be.
Wide receivers: The excitement about Allar was palpable but I think it’s fair to say the thoughts about his receiver were more tepid. Lambert-Smith showed flashes previously but hadn’t consistently produced. Harrison Wallace III is a high level athlete who hadn’t turned it into on-field production. I don’t know if those are going to be concerns moving forward after how they both played against West Virginia. Lambert-Smith was a big play machine, catching four passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Wallace was steady and consistent, hauling in seven passes for 72 yards, although he did drop his only other target.
Those two should be the top weapons for Allar this year, but there’s reason to believe others will be able to step up behind them. Florida State transfer Malik McClain caught four passes for 58 yards and a touchdown in the game, showing off better short area movement skills than he showed at his previous school. Kent State transfer Dante Cephas flashed with a quality leaping grab and was able to get open when he saw the field. Liam Clifford was the most consistent receiver and caught both passes that came his way. Regardless of who steps up into that role, Penn State has to feel good about where it’s at in the receiver room.
Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen: The passing game stole the show but Penn State proved that its running game is still going to be able to carry the game on offense if it needs to. Both backs had great games and took advantage of their opportunities much like they did last season. Singleton showed his power and speed combo, breaking off chunk yardage to earn 70 yards on his 13 carries, including a touchdown out of the T formation. Allen made his impact mostly between the tackles with his contact balance and power, running for 51 yards on 10 carries.
Those two were able to make their plays when they had a chance, despite not necessarily having the type of game-changing plays they frequently did last season. I wouldn’t take that as a sign that the running game will be as good this year. In fact, I expect it to be even better. But being able to throw the ball means the running back duo won’t have to carry the offense as often as it did and that should allow them to play at an even higher level this season.
Offensive line: It helps both the two running backs and Allar that the offensive line was as good as advertised. The group only gave up one sack and continually paved the way for the backs to get to the second level of the defense. Left tackle Olu Fashanu played at the high level I would expect from a projected top-five pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and rarely lost his reps, especially in pass protection. JB Nelson stepped up as the starting left guard after Landon Tengwall retired from the sport earlier in the week and proved to be a worthy replacement.
Center Hunter Nourzad helped guide Allar by calling the protections well, rarely having anyone in the group make the incorrect play, while holding his own on his blocks. Right guard Sal Wormley got downhill and played well in the running game, and did more than enough to keep Allar clean in the pocket. The most important performance, however, may have been that of right tackle Caedan Wallace. Wallace was inconsistent in previous years, but Saturday was the most complete performance of his career. If he can lock down that spot, this line is going to be elite this season.
Linebacker play: This was not a banner night for the Penn State linebackers. There was a lot of excitement surrounding Abdul Carter entering the season, and for good reason. He’s as athletic as any linebacker in the country and was a playmaker for the Nittany Lion defense in 2022. His 2023 campaign, however, did not start in an ideal way. Yes, he recorded a sack and broke up an attempted trick play by West Virginia, but the rest wasn’t at the level I saw from him last year.
There is a fine line between aggressiveness and playing out of control and he teetered toward the latter Saturday night. Carter over-pursued several times, losing Greene when he’d scramble and missing a few chances to make important plays by missing tackles. There’s a decent chance this is his worst performance of the year because of how good he usually is and how good he should be the rest of the year. Outside of Carter, Tyler Elsdon and Dom DeLuca were not at their best, struggling in coverage at times and against the run. Both will need to improve in order to fend off young players like Keon Wylie and Tony Rojas who should be fighting for playing time this season.
Run defense: Honestly, the run defense wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again since we’re at the open of another season — this is good, bad, ugly; it isn’t good, not great, ugly. So we’ll stick the run defense here. The linebackers did not have a great game against the run, too often missing assignments and leaving gaps wide open for West Virginia running back C.J. Donaldson and Greene, who scrambled frequently. Those two combined for 33 carries for 152 yards on the ground.
That’s not terrible against a team that excels at running the ball, but it will only get worse against a team like Michigan later in the season, with the Wolverines being one of the most dominant running teams in the country. The linebackers didn’t reach the level they need to, but the defensive tackles also struggled at times to hold up against the WVU offensive line, which, for what it’s worth, is very good. Penn State will surely work to improve how it performs against the run as that matchup with Michigan looms as the ultimate test in November.
Field goal kicking: Missing two field goals is bad. Missing two field goals under 40 yards is very bad. Sander Sahaydak pulled both of his attempts — one from 34 yards and one from 38 yards — just right for misses in the game when the outcome was still in question. He was then replaced by Alex Felkins, who hit from 25 yards out. But still, it’s not a good sign when the player who won the job comes out and struggles right away.
This is an area the Nittany Lions will need to figure out. But really they’ll just need someone to step up and find more consistency on field goals. Sahaydak has plenty of leg talent and the ability to do it, but for now it seems like a change could be in store, at least in the short term.