The Penn State Football Year in Review (2024)

Penn State got the college football world buzzing all offseason before stepping foot into Beaver Stadium against West Virginia in Week 1. Talking heads boldly placed the Nittany Lions in the College Football Playoff, many predicted James Franklin finally getting over the hump against Ohio State and/or Michigan and the star-studded sophom*ore class was sure to take the next step behind first-year starting quarterback Drew Allar.

Well, much of that flamed out. Penn State football reached 10 wins for the fifth time under Franklin, but its three losses came to the Buckeyes, Wolverines and New Year’s Six bowl opponent Ole Miss. Allar had fine stats (notably a 25/2 touchdown-to-interception ratio), but his development was a question mark for much of the year in a stagnating Penn State offense.

The Lions' defense certainly held up, ranking first in the nation in a handful of spots, but coordinator Manny Diaz left for Duke before the bowl game. Naturally, there’s a lot to be done and discussed before the 2024 season gets here, such as reeling in a few more big fish from the transfer portal like Wednesday’s splash of wide receiver Julian Fleming. But for now, here’s to 2023.

Best moment: Allar to KLS Week 1

Boy, what a way to instill some (ultimately false) hope in a fan base. On his second throw against West Virginia, Allar avoided pressure and released a rope to KeAndre Lambert-Smith for Penn State’s first touchdown of the season. It was a 72-yard strike, providing what seemed to be a glimpse of a promising year.

Anyone at Beaver Stadium could feel a collective, “So that’s what it looks like.” For all the good and bad Penn State endured with Sean Clifford, the story was always that Allar had far better pure talent, and many hoped he would reshape the passing game. Allar showed it at times in 2023, with none more eye-opening than his first scoring toss. Yet even with that talent, Allar’s season was uneven. He’ll have some work to do, especially as a decision-maker, as the calendar turns. A lot of the same sentiment goes for Lambert-Smith. Finally getting his chance to be Penn State’s No. 1 option, Lambert-Smith delivered a string of good performances to close 2022 and carry momentum into 2023.

His four-catch, 123-yard, two-touchdown line against West Virginia in the opener was by far his biggest output of the year. By the end, Lambert-Smith had just two catches across his final four games (none in the Peach Bowl) and fueled some social media discussion about Penn State’s wide receivers. He has a decision to make still, whether to return in 2024, enter the NFL Draft or even hit the transfer portal.

Worst moment(s): Third down

It’s hard to pick one play or game for the worst moment of the year, considering Penn State’s losses to Michigan and Ohio State were frustrating in similar fashions. Instead, we’ll highlight the downfall of both games: third down.

Penn State’s Mike Yurcich led-offense went a combined 5-30 on third down against the Big Ten’s best, including a brutal 0-15 at Ohio State before a virtually meaningless scoring drive. The Lions’ patented short-yardage T-formation was much less effective than it was last season, and play-calling looked lost at times outside of the T. In all, Penn State finished with a 40.8 percent conversion rate on third down, ranking 54th in the country, but was buoyed by weak competition for most of the schedule. That undoubtedly led, in part, to our next talking point.

Biggest news: Firing Mike Yurcich

Franklin did something in 2023 he’d never done before: fire a coordinator midseason. He relieved Yurcich of his duties less than 24 hours after the Michigan debacle concluded and promoted interim co-coordinators Ja’Juan Seider and Ty Howle in his place. Franklin hired former Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki after the season for the same role at Penn State, marking the sixth coach to hold the job in Franklin’s tenure.

Yurcich’s nearly three-year tenure with the Lions was marred by inconsistency. Penn State finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring the past two seasons, but that was largely thanks to big performances against poor teams. Losing offensive identity along the way, Franklin hinted at play-calling as a cause for offensive struggles, especially from Allar, in one of the uglier breakups of his tenure.

Penn State broke out in a 42-0 win over Michigan State to close the regular season, causing some to suggest a sooner firing of Yurcich could’ve changed the tides against Michigan. But the offense failed once again in the Peach Bowl against Ole Miss, making it clear Kotelnicki has some work to do moving into 2024.

Best breakout: Daequan Hardy

When you tie a program record for season performance in just one game, you deserve recognition. Cornerback Daequan Hardy did so against UMass, returning two punts for touchdowns to tie a single-season Penn State record with Jimmy Cefalo, O.J. McDuffie, Bruce Branch and Larry Johnson Jr. His runs were 56 and 68 yards; the first came on his first punt return since high school no less.

The performance turned Hardy into Penn State’s primary punt returner for the rest of the season. His numbers held up, averaging 14.59 yards on 17 returns with his pair of scores. For reference, Iowa’s Cooper DeJean — the Big Ten returner of the year — averaged 11.5 yards on 21 returns with one score.

Hardy has been an underrated member of Penn State’s secondary for a few years now. Declaring for the 2024 NFL Draft, he should get some looks as a nickel corner and Swiss Army knife on special teams. Hardy finished his Penn State career with 25 pass breakups and 5 interceptions.

Honorable mention for top breakouts: safety Kevin Winston Jr., linebacker Kobe King and tight end Tyler Warren.

Biggest area of need: wide receiver

There’s a glaring need at receiver for Penn State, as two transfer portal additions this offseason didn’t lead to much improvement in a room that was already under scrutiny. One, Dante Cephas, already is in the portal again. There’s also some truth that Penn State’s wide receivers weren’t as bad as their numbers, as Lambert-Smith and Kaden Saunders indicated on X after the Peach Bowl. Allar has to improve, and the offensive scheme has to improve. But a lot still falls on that group.

In Marques Hagans’ first season as the receivers coach, Lambert-Smith led the group with 673 yards and four touchdowns, while Cephas was second with 246 yards and two touchdowns. Their combined mark is far and away the lowest output from Franklin’s top two receivers during his Penn State tenure.

Fleming’s addition along with three talented class of 2024 signees helps bolster the group, but more should be done through the transfer portal. Long gone are the days of Jahan Dotson, Chris Godwin and other true No. 1 threats on the outside.

Penn State Football on SI.com

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How the Ole Miss Rebels, and coach Lane Kiffin, trolled Penn State at the Peach Bowl

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Max Ralph is a Penn State senior studying Broadcast Journalism with minors in sports studies and Japanese. He previously covered Penn State football for two years with The Daily Collegian and has reported with the Associated Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter (X) @maxralph_ and Instagram @mralph_59.

AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network.

The Penn State Football Year in Review (2024)
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