STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Drew Allar scurried to the Penn State sideline and slipped into the medical tent early in the third quarter. Several of his teammates were wrapped up in the the game, unaware of what was unfolding.
Tight end Theo Johnson hadn’t noticed the hit Allar took two plays before at the end of a run for 8 yards. Johnson assumed Penn State was just rolling with backup quarterback Beau Pribula for a change of pace, as it did for one play earlier in the game and as coaches spoke of doing several times this season.
“Every single play that he’s not in he’s taking a mental rep behind Drew,” Johnson said. “He truly approaches it like he’s gonna get in the game, and even when he doesn’t he’s ready to go.”
Into the huddle stepped Pribula. The redshirt freshman who grew up in Pennsylvania dreaming of playing for the Nittany Lions was now taking meaningful game reps at the helm of an offense already in flux. Pribula would make his mark, too, scampering for a 39-yard run on his first play and leading No. 12 Penn State to a 27-6 win against Rutgers.
“I’m always going to prepare as if I’m the starter, no matter what the circumstance is,” Pribula said. “I did it last year as the fourth-string. I was ready to go at all times.”
In the past seven days, head coach James Franklin fired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and subsequently wouldn’t say who among co-offensive coordinators Ty Howle and Ja’Juan Seider was actually calling plays in this game. Game planning all week was expected to be collaborative. Graduate assistant Danny O’Brien, who is now coaching the quarterbacks, had worked all week to prepare them.
Anyone who came into Saturday expecting the Penn State-Rutgers blowouts of old hasn’t been watching Penn State closely enough. All that ails this Nittany Lion offense was never going to be fixed in the week after Yurcich’s firing. It’s a project for the offseason and the next offensive coordinator. But the unexpected challenge of losing Allar for nearly the entire second half meant it was all hands on deck during a week where there’s been no shortage of chipping in from everyone in the program.
Suddenly, as Allar stood on the sideline for most of the second half unable to lift his right arm above the height of the numbers on his jersey, Penn State’s gameplan needed to be altered. The prized five-star prospect winced with each movement of that throwing arm. His day was finished with completions on 6 of 13 passes for 79 yards. Allar ran the ball three times for 28 yards, but that wallop at the end of the 8-yard gain was a potentially costly sequence for Penn State.
When everyone moved up a slot on the quarterback depth chart, it meant Pribula was finally getting his chance. This wasn’t mop-up duty or a one-play sequence. It is now uncertain who will lead this offense into a short week with a game at Ford Field against Michigan State on Friday.
Add that to the list of questions for a Penn State offense that has faced no shortage of them this season. Franklin, when asked about Allar’s health, said he wasn’t “going to get into medical stuff.” Franklin then added that “I don’t see this being significant, but we will see.”
What Franklin didn’t say was that QB1 is fine. Allar remaining on the sideline the rest of the game might be a point in his favor. The ball he awkwardly lofted toward the sideline immediately after taking the hit might signify that something with that coveted arm is or went awry. I don’t know.
What I do know is the most intriguing player on any football team is always the backup quarterback. Last season, as the final year of Sean Clifford’s collegiate career unfolded, many people (myself included) wanted to see more of Allar. This season, as the sophomore looked skittish in the two biggest games of the year — albeit without much help from a receiving corps where No. 1 receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith has one catch for 6 yards during the last two games — questions about what Pribula can do have been raised, at least outside the program.
Pribula attempted just one pass over the rest of the game, nearly an entire half. Penn State ripped off 17 consecutive runs from the time Allar exited until Pribula connected with tight end Tyler Warren for a 9-yard completion. When Pribula entered, Penn State led 10-6. This wasn’t a “run it to grind clock” type of sequence — just the reality that this is Penn State’s strength right now.
“We were ready to throw the ball today,” said Pribula, who finished with eight rushes for 71 yards. “We had some shots dialed up. We had passes that I ended up running on. I’m really comfortable with throwing the ball, it just so happens like, you know, we didn’t throw it as much today.”
Penn State came into this season knowing it had two completely different quarterbacks in Allar and Pribula. The goal of the Pribula package was to get both on the field at the same time so that defenses would have to think about how to defend Pribula’s mobility.
If he’s the guy in the regular season finale, he will need to throw the ball. Give a defense a week to prepare for Pribula, and that defense will do everything in its power to force him to beat it with his arm. Until he shows that he can do that at this level, questions will remain.
Franklin had success with a mobile quarterback named Trace McSorley. Pribula, coincidentally, wears the same No. 9 that McSorley did, but to compare this receiving corps to McSorley’s would be unjust. The question that needs to be in on the mind of every offensive coordinator who contemplates taking the Penn State job is how the receiving corps can be upgraded to help all of these quarterbacks.
Until then, Penn State finds itself having to do what it has done all season: rely on a suffocating defense, create takeaways and run the ball either with Kaytron Allen, Nick Singleton or Pribula. Even against a stout Rutgers run defense, Penn State was able to rely almost exclusively on the ground game in the second half. It’s a positive that they can move the ball. It may not always be flashy, but it’s something.
“I thought we had a good plan,” Franklin said, adding that they wanted to get Pribula involved regardless of whether or not Allar was healthy. Pribula did play one snap in the first half with Allar on the field out of the package designed for him.
“Some of our zone-read stuff that we do, some of the similar things that we did against Iowa that we thought there was carryover and made sense,” Franklin continued. “I think you guys have seen it all year long, too, when Beau will come into a game they have to respect the zone read. It changes how you call the game defensively. There’s no doubt about it.”
As Allar walked off the field Saturday afternoon, grimacing even as he tried to wrap his arm around a teammate to sing the alma mater, it marked the end at least of his sophomore season at Beaver Stadium.
Maybe he’ll be back on a short week, maybe not. Either way, it sets up another significant week for an offensive staff that continues working around the clock searching for answers.
(Photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)