Brad Maendler sees something different in Penn State this week of the Ohio State game. The lifelong Buckeyes fan is also conflicted. He just happens to be Penn State quarterback Drew Allar's throwing coach.
The pair have been together since Allar rose out of Medina, Ohio, to become a five-star redeemer for the Nittany Lions. At least that's the plan in the minds of legions of Penn State fans.
"I felt it when I was at West Virginia game," Maendler said of the team's season opener, an impressive 38-15 win. "The fan base when Drew threw that first touchdown pass, on an off-platform throw, the stadium just erupted. It was like a pent up, 'We want to be elite again.'"
Maendler might not be a complete insider, but the former corporate executive who spent a quarter century in sales training has seen some sort of change in the Nittany Lions, which usually enter this game strong only to ultimately stumble.
James Franklin's record against top teams as Penn State coach might as well be chiseled into the frontal lobe of Nittany Lions everywhere: 1-8 against Ohio State, 3-6 against Michigan. Against the larger college football world, Franklin is 2-15 against top 10 teams and 1-10 against top fives.
But Maendler is feeling that vibe.
"When I'm around the kids, I'm kind of like being quiet, observing," he said of Penn State. "There's this energy like they know they're close."
Welcome to a snapshot of the beginning of the Big Ten season. What, you missed the opening day flyover? Well, there wasn't one, especially with Iowa tunneling for yards all season instead of lighting up the skies.
But even an ardent Big Ten fan could have taken the last seven weeks off and not missed much. Halfway through the season, the league is top heavy (again) with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all ranked in the top seven -- respectfully ranked second, third and seventh in the AP Top 25. And as you've probably noticed by now, they've yet to play each other.
Penn State at Ohio State this weekend is the "kickoff."
As usual, Big Ten dramatics are backloaded. This is where it's about to get good. In the next six weeks, the league's Big Three all play one another. Ohio State visits Michigan on the last day of the conference season, Nov. 25.
For the third year in a row, that meeting may equate to the de facto conference title game. For now, the little round robin between the three begins Saturday with Penn State trying to go from really good to great.
Franklin spoke in coded language this week. Heading into his team's latest head-butting against the Big Ten's traditional powers, something does seem different.
Like Michigan, Penn State has barely been challenged this season. But the defense is suffocating, ranked No. 1 nationally. What's more intimidating than having a Chop (Robinson, defensive end) leading your defense? Kalen King could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL Draft. Coordinator Manny Diaz just might be the front-runner for the Frank Broyles Award (best assistant coach).
Back to that code.
"You have to understand and figure out what the identity of your team is and embrace that identity no matter what the outside world is saying," Franklin said this week.
What the outside world is asking -- among other things -- is when Penn State is going to open it up? The Nittany Lions are tied for 129th in explosive plays of 20+ yards. Allar has done well. Penn State is one of only three teams not to throw an interception in 2023. The others are Navy and Air Force with the Falcons having attempted just 28 passes all season; Penn State has thrown 195.
Franklin has dropped what amounts to a forewarning: His team isn't going to explode at The Shoe.
"Studying the analytics are important so you're aware of what those things say, but a lot of times, those analytics and trends are there for a reason," he explained. "It means you're good at something."
Like almost everything else in the Big Ten this season, the Penn State franchise tilts toward defense. They've allowed only six touchdowns and an average of eight points per game. The D has been even better than advertised.
We've been here before. Penn State hasn't won this game since 2016. It lost consecutive one-point games in 2017-18. In 2019, All-American Micah Parsons was dominant with 10 tackles at Ohio State, two for lost yardage ... but the Nittany Lions fell 28-17.
Last year, Penn State had Ohio State beat at Beaver Stadium -- or at least had the Buckeyes extremely nervous with the Nittany Lions holding a five-point lead with just over 9 minutes remaining. Then Ohio State defensive lineman JT Tuimoloau capped off an individual defensive performance for the ages.
That's why there might be so much on Allar this week. Mostly, he hasn't been turned loose. His 6.9 yards per pass are sixth in the Big Ten, 79th nationally. Wide receiver Keandre Lambert-Smith has caught the same number of balls as Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. (31), but in terms in fireworks, you might want to take the Buckeyes' All-American.
Franklin is indicating Allar probably won't be turned loose -- on the road against a talented rival with its own goals for greatness.
Ohio State wants more of the same. Penn State wants a breakthrough.
"It is definitely a take-what-they-give-you type of offense," Maendler said. "As the season progresses, you're going to see more vertical shots from Drew. I feel like this is going to happen eventually. He's got like top 1% velocity. But he's a first-year starter. They're scoring 30 points a game. I'm probably talking like James Franklin right now."
It's almost as if Allar is being time released. Maybe Saturday is the time. Maybe it has to be the time. Among Power Five teams, eight of the top 10 in explosive plays (20+ yards) are ranked in the top 25, including No. 1 Georgia and No. 5 Washington.
It's a nice club to be in.
Maendler pursued Allar after seeing him throw for 500-plus yards against Cleveland power St. Edward. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the two separated for obvious reasons, but Maendler gave Allar some pointers.
"During that time, some kids watched a lot of Netflix, played a lot of video games. He worked hard," Maendler said. "He kind of emerged in mid-April. I saw this maturation I wasn't used to seeing. It was his body. He had started working out with a trainer. He had this big, long body he wasn't necessarily in control of -- coordination, those type of things weren't there. [All that was] coming together. We get to May, June, July, and every session becomes better and better."
In 2022, Allar might have been the best quarterback you never saw. Some Penn State fans couldn't wait for the transition from Sean Clifford. As a freshman, Allar threw 60 times mostly in mop-up situations.
Something has to give ... or maybe not? Ohio State's defense has not allowed a single play of more 36 yards. The Buckeyes have won six straight games and 10 of the last 11 in this series. Such dominance has never happened in this rivalry.
Maendler continues to feel a difference watching those practices at Happy Valley.
"It's like, 'We have some something special here,'" he said. "They want it badly."
- If the numbers hold, attendance would be up for the second straight year. Consecutive attendance increases haven't happened in the FBS since 2008. The midseason average of 42,689 would be the highest since 2016, per the NCAA. (Gee, doesn't seem like NIL is ruining the game at all.)
- Since 2009, only a handful of quarterbacks have finished the season completing at least 70% of their passes. In 2009 and from 2013-17, there were two or fewer each season. Midway through 2023, there are 14.
- Boise State's Ashton Jeanty is listed as a running back but is being utilized as the ultimate all-purpose player. The sophomore from Jacksonville, Florida, -- a member of the -- leads the country in touchdowns (15), scoring (90 points) and all-purpose yards per game (180.6). His yards after catch (604) are the most by a non-receiver. Talk about a late bloomer. At 5-foot-9, 210 pounds, Jeanty was passed over by most big programs coming out of Frisco High School.
- The four Pac-12 games this week represent the last regular-season conference meetings between their teams: Washington State (TBD) at Oregon (Big Ten), Utah (Big 12) at USC (Big Ten), Arizona State (Big 12) at Washington (Big Ten), UCLA (Big Ten) at Stanford (ACC).
Third Saturday in October: Both Alabama and Tennessee have given up only 21 points once this season. Quite a change from last year's shootout. With that D, the Vols have a chance at Bryant-Denny Stadium … Take Utah, just because, at USC. The Utes have proven they are more physical than the Trojans winning the last three in a row and five of the last eight. Caleb Williams needs to rebound. Presumably, Cam Rising won't play again this week … Miami (vs. Clemson) has given up seven points off turnovers all season. Yes, you guessed it. They came after that failed kneel down against Georgia Tech … James Madison (70) received more points in the AP Top 25 this week than Clemson (35). You can see the Dukes here debuting in my … Missouri (vs. South Carolina) is fascinating. The Tigers control their own destiny in the SEC East. Assuming a loss Nov. 4 at Georgia, if the Tigers can take care of business against Tennessee and Florida at home, does 10-2 get them to a New Year's Six bowl? … Colorado is allowing 35.9 points per game (123rd nationally); that's more than Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan combined (24.4)