COLUMBUS, Ohio — Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford couldn't hide his anger or dejection, nor did he try. After what likely will be his last game against Ohio State, Clifford still looked as though he wanted one more shot.
"This is where I'm from, Ohio," Clifford said late Saturday. "It's a tough one for me. But we'll battle, get back to business and get better."
No. 5 Ohio State outlasted Penn State 33-24 on Saturday, winning its fifth straight game in the series, which likely sends the Lions' senior class off without a win over the Buckeyes. Sure, some players could come back (including Clifford), but it's unlikely. Coach James Franklin has to make decisions about his roster composition, particularly with the nation's top-ranked recruiting class poised to sign.
The Lions, who have lost three straight, played a fiery game at Ohio Stadium, perhaps even their best this season. They stood up to the Buckeyes' offense, allowing just two offensive touchdowns, and converted third downs at their best rate (61.1 percent) this year.
But for a defensive touchdown and the two longest offensive plays against them this season, the Lions might have prevented Ohio State fans from running onto the field after the game.
And had they played like that last week, the Lions might feel better about themselves Sunday morning.
Penn State (5-3) clearly built and executed a better gameplan against Ohio State (7-1) than it did in a nine-overtime loss to Illinois (3-6). That had to be frustrating, even if, as head coach James Franklin said, one major stock was up Saturday.
"One of the biggest differences was Sean's health tonight," Franklin said. "I thought that made a big difference."
Clifford, who completed a career-high 35 passes for 361 yards, a touchdown and an interception, looked like the quarterback who led Penn State to a 17-3 lead over Iowa. Then he got hurt, played against Illinois with significant limitations, but made his way to Ohio Stadium with fresh hope.
Clifford downplayed the game's importance this week, unlike he had before. In 2019, for instance, Clifford called his visit to Ohio State "a little personal," particularly considering he's from Cincinnati. That this game ended as it did exhumed those feelings.
"That's the worst part, because you feel like you’re getting better, and it's just not enough," Clifford said. "It’s always on myself. I feel like I could have done so much more just to change the outcome. That's the toughest part of being a leader: just battling through your own adversity as well as the team's. I love these guys to death."
That Penn State did not play like this against Illinois merely amplified the loss. The Lions held Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson, who entered the game averaging 8.77 yards per carry, to 20 yards on his first 14 carries. Ultimately, though, Henderson broke a 68-yard run and finished with 152.
Meanwhile, receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington combined for 20 catches, and Penn State was within one possession for much of the fourth quarter. Heck, Franklin even could have gone for a 4th-and-5 from his own 30-yard line in the fourth had he wanted to really shake up the Buckeyes.
Ultimately, Franklin didn't want to relate the Illinois and Ohio State games, calling them different entities with different personnel availabilities. He hinted that Penn State confronted more injury and personnel issues vs. Illinois than just Clifford's, notably on a defense that allowed 357 yards rushing.
"I don’t want to really get into last week, and obviously there’s a reason [for] some of the decisions we made and some of our personnel challenges from last week," Franklin said. "But I think we have defended the run all year long except for last week, and there’s reasons for that, but nobody wants to hear them."
This was the kind of game from which Franklin will seek to extract positives, particularly during Sunday's film study. That will inform his transition to next week's trip to Maryland for a 3:30 ET game that marks another inflection point.
Maryland leveled Penn State 35-19 in 2020, taking advantage of a wounded two-loss team that had just fallen to Ohio State. Late Saturday, Franklin predicted that this losing streak ends in Ohio.
"I think we've played hard all year long," Franklin said. "I know last week did not play the way we’re capable of playing, but I thought we played hard all year long with a challenging schedule, especially early on. We didn't play good enough to win tonight, but we're close. I'm going to keep working with these guys, loving these guys, and we'll find a way to win next week."