Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Penn State goes on the road, commits a couple of dumb turnovers in the first half, falls behind, then loses at the last second despite an exciting comeback attempt and an advantage of about 200 in the yardage department.
Yes, the 30-23 loss to Nebraska felt like deja vu after PSU fans sat through many of the same scenes that made the defeat at Indiana such a torture rack. The two key differences against the Cornhuskers were that the Nittany Lions never had the lead in Lincoln and that Will Levis replaced Sean Clifford in the second quarter.
That’s it. That’s the play that prompted James Franklin to finally pull Clifford and take his chances with the unproven Levis. Clifford has now fumbled into an opponent touchdown for the second week in a row and has generally been a turnover machine in 2020. Earlier in the game he killed a Penn State drive with a critically misplaced throw. He also threw a pair of interceptions against both Maryland and Indiana.
I thought the Ohio State game was a sign of good thing to come for Clifford, as he connected with Jahan Dotson for three touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over until very late, but he fell hard back to old habits in these last two painful losses. Enter Levis, who clumsily filled in for Clifford when he got hurt in Columbus last season and barely led Penn State to a win over Rutgers.
Levis at least looked more comfortable throwing the ball this time around, but he still failed to complete half his passes and was exposed at the end of the game when the Lions turned the ball over on downs in two consecutive red zone trips. The good news: Levis didn’t throw any interceptions and showed he can improvise when he hit Pat Freiermuth for a huge play that got PSU back in the game.
Penn State wouldn’t score again, but Levis played well enough that there’s now a legitimate quarterback conversation to be had, even if neither option is good enough to beat Iowa next week. Here’s what Franklin had to say about the situation after the game.
Yeah, we’re not going to name a starting quarterback right after a game before discussing it as a staff and before evaluating the tape, watching the tape and all those types of things. But yeah, where we’re at in that game, again, with the turnovers, and with what’s gone on in the season so far, we had to make that change. And I thought Will did some really good things coming in for us. So obviously, that’ll be discussion all week long and I know we’ll talk about it later in the week.
Franklin seemed happy enough with how Levis played and is clearly frustrated with Clifford’s constant turnovers. I would be surprised if Levis wasn’t the starter against Iowa, but it is going to be tough sledding for whomever is under center. The Hawkeyes have allowed just seven points in each of their last two games. If PSU doesn’t upset Iowa, it’s doomed to its first losing season since 2004. Oof.