Shocking loss to Maryland exposes Sean Clifford and Penn State’s lack of quarterback depth

Penn State lost to Maryland on Saturday and I’m at a loss for words. It would be one thing if the Nittany Lions let another game slip away due to sloppy quarterback play and poor clock management, but instead they were dominated by a Terrapins squad that just two weeks ago was blown out by Northwestern.

How did Maryland come away with a 35-19 victory that wasn’t even that close? It starts with Taulia Tagovailoa looking a lot more like his brother Tua than anyone anticipated. The sophomore from Hawaii might have struggled in his debut, but in his last two games (both Maryland wins), he’s shown poise, accuracy, and the ability to make plays on the move.

Look at him step up to his right on that play and throw across his body to hit freshman phenom Rakim Jarrett in stride for an electric touchdown. It’s safe to say that Maryland fans haven’t seen that kind of ability from a quarterback in a long time. Based on the potential that the young Tagovailoa has shown, I can give the PSU defense a little slack, especially since they clamped down in the second half.

The offense, on the other hand, laid a huge egg and raised serious questions about the future of the quarterback position. Sean Clifford was that bad. He had trouble finding open receivers, which led to him taking seven sacks and completing just 47 percent of his passes. Clifford started pressing in the second half and turned the ball over three times to put the game out of reach.

At least Clifford was able to throw enough to let Jahan Dotson show off his talents some more. The problem is that he’s not showing much improvement in his second season under center. Against Indiana and Ohio State, Clifford stepped up in the second half to keep Penn State alive. With Maryland in town, we expected Clifford to have his best game of the season — last year in College Park, he went 26-for-31 for 398 yards — but instead he looked lost in James Franklin’s most embarrassing defeat as head coach.

Fans have to be patient with Franklin. In three of the last four seasons, he’s won either a Big Ten title or a New Year’s Six bowl. The man might drive me crazy with some of his decisions, but he’s also a proven winner, and one lousy campaign in a pandemic year isn’t going to change that. Franklin has to be thinking seriously about his quarterback situation, though. There’s no excuse for him not to have a viable backup option on the roster. We know from 2019 that Will Levis is not that guy, but who is?

I don’t think anyone on the current roster is a capable replacement, and that’s why Clifford played all 60 minutes even as the Maryland game fell out of reach in the fourth quarter. There are a couple of talented freshmen on the roster in Ta’Quan Roberson and Micah Bowens, but I doubt we see either of them surpass Clifford before he graduates.

For the next two seasons, we’re probably stuck with Clifford, so Franklin has to find a way to win with him. That’s getting tougher and tougher as we see how the former doormats of the East division are rapidly improving. Maybe the dud against Maryland was just a fluke performance, but I don’t know how Penn State could look past Maryland after dropping its first two games in an eight-game season.

Either way, Franklin and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca need to get the offense back on track during Penn State’s upcoming road game at Nebraska. If the Lions drop that one, we could be headed toward a winless season.

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