If Penn State doesn’t learn from Saturday’s ugly win, expect more heartbreak vs. Michigan

A stoic James Franklin headed toward the tunnel in the south end zone of Beaver Stadium after Saturday’s game — without as much as a smile — until he was stopped by grinning athletic director Pat Kraft.

Eventually, the athletic director got Franklin to crack a smile of his own, wrapping his arm around his neck and pulling him in to draw it out. The head coach’s reaction was fitting — he has to know that the win is not like others. He always talks about needing to enjoy victories, but this one was harder to celebrate. Penn State, a 31.5-point Vegas favorite heading into the game, could not feel secure in its 33-24 victory over Indiana until the game’s final two minutes. The Nittany Lion offense was listless and in need of a savior against one of the worst defenses in the conference.

Fortunately for them, sophomore Drew Allar delivered with a perfectly placed deep ball to KeAndre Lambert-Smith with 1:46 on the clock for a 57-yard touchdown that gave them a 31-24 lead. And now Allar, Franklin and the rest of the team will need that to be a sign of things to come rather than the putrid offensive performance that came before it.

Because what happened earlier was as bad as the late touchdown play was great. Penn State scored 17 first half points, 10 of which came from short fields and turnovers. That kind of start can lead to other issues that deepen the hole and, early on, it looked as if Saturday’s struggling offensive performance was going to be similar to the one against the Buckeyes.

Despite that, the group tried to minimize the impact of its previous failure.

“We didn’t start the way that we needed to, but instead of allowing last week to affect us again, and allowing things to continue to get worse, I think we did a really good job of responding to that,” tight end Theo Johnson said.

Added Lambert-Smith: “You know, like, what your expectations are as an offense. And when you’re not clicking on all cylinders, it can be a little frustrating. But there’s no pointing fingers.”

Penn State quarterback Drew Allar makes a long pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith to get a touchdown during the game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.
Penn State quarterback Drew Allar makes a long pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith to get a touchdown during the game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Lambert-Smith’s final stats point to a receiver who continues to add value in a position group that has struggled mightily behind him. He finished with six catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. Only one other receiver caught a pass — Dante Cephas with two receptions for 15 yards — and the team’s clear-cut No. 2, Harrison Wallace III, left with an injury and eventually returned to the sideline with his right arm in a sling.

The receivers have been a major part of the team’s offensive struggles. Nobody behind the top two has stepped up consistently, and they have not given Allar enough opportunity to make plays — although the quarterback is not blameless. He played poorly Saturday, much like he did against Ohio State, throwing his first career interception the drive before he hit Lambert-Smith.

The interception could have been devastating for Penn State. It gave Indiana the ball back in Nittany Lion territory with a chance to either take the lead or tie it with a field goal. The defense stood strong, forcing a field goal and getting the ball back to Allar.

What came next is a testament to the young quarterback.

“You throw your first interception, how are you going to respond from it?” Franklin said. “I thought he handled it really well and delivered a big-time throw. A big-time throw. That’s a positive and something we can build on.”

That doesn’t change that he needs the rest of the offense to do its part.

“We’ve got to continue to work at creating separation and getting open at tight end and wide receiver to help with those things,” Franklin said. “And I think we’ve got to do everything we possibly can from a scheme standpoint as well.”

And yet, for a few short moments, none of that was an issue. Allar lofted his throw over Indiana’s Jordan Grier into the waiting arms of Lambert-Smith — who said afterward he lost the ball for a brief moment in the sun — and gave Penn State the lead for good. In an ideal world, that’s a feature of the offense rather than a rarity.

Franklin said, after all, that there are 10-12 shot plays called every game. For whatever reason — whether it’s Allar not seeing receivers, them not separating or some other issue — the Nittany Lions have been incapable of connecting on them.

Yet, on Saturday they did. Lambert-Smith trotted into the end zone as the stadium erupted around him and the sideline celebrated with joy.

But walking off the field following the win, Franklin had to know — Lambert-Smith’s explosive play can not be a one-off. It must be the start of the offense finding itself. Otherwise there will be a familiar feeling in two weeks after Penn State takes on Michigan. And it won’t be the one the program felt Saturday.

It will be like the one in Columbus a week ago — with a dejected program wondering where it goes from there.