Like most quarterbacks, Penn State's Sean Clifford is willing to take losses squarely on his own jaw. He did that Saturday night after Penn State's 36-35 overtime loss to Indiana.
"We definitely shot ourselves in the foot, and it starts with me," Clifford said. "I don't want anyone else taking this loss. This one was on me."
Clifford went 24 for 35 for 238 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a game-high 119 yards and another score but primarily remembered his two interceptions. He threw both in the first half, one on a benign-looking screen play, and the picks led to 10 Indiana points.
For that, Clifford delivered a pretty stern personal critique, and head coach James Franklin didn't entirely disagree.
"I didn't feel like we were comfortable on offense or in a rhythm in the first half, and I think obviously a lot of that is the quarterback," Franklin said. "It's just the nature of playing football and the nature of offensive football. But I thought he did settle down as the game went on. I also thought that when he became a more aggressive runner, that's a big part of his game, that other things fell into place for him."
Clifford expected Penn State's offense to emerge crisply from the long offseason, saying last week that he didn't see "a hiccup coming." He was right at first, leading Penn State on a 64-yard touchdown drive to start the game, which he capped with a fourth-down scoring pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth.
But the Lions looked uneasy the rest of the first half, during which Clifford floated two easy interceptions to Indiana defenders. On the first, an intended screen pass, Clifford said he made a "stupid play" and shouldn't have tried to force it. "That was a big-time game-changer," he said.
The second was simply and overthrow intended for Freiermuth. That one gave Indiana possession at the Penn State 4-yard line, producing an easy touchdown.
"You can't do that in big games, especially against a team like Indiana," Clifford said. "You can't give them that easy field position."
After that, offensive coordinaor Kirk Ciarrocca leaned on more zone-read and draw plays to give Clifford a chance to reset himself through the run game. It worked: Clifford had his first career 100-yard rushing game and also completed eight consecutive passes after the interception.
Clifford further ran for a 35-yard touchdown in the third qurarter that cut Penn State's deficit to 3 points at 17-14. His 60-yard touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson in the fourth quarter should have clinched the game, especially considering Penn State's ensuing defensive stand.
Instead, after a stunning sequence of Penn State mistakes, Clifford found himself back on the field with 22 seconds left. His last lament was not getting a few extra yards for kicker Jordan Stout, whose game-winning, 57-yard field-goal attempt came up short.
"What we always say is, one play can't lose the game, but one play can always win the game," Clifford said. "It starts with me. I just have to be better."
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