COLUMBUS, Ohio — Penn State rediscovered its moxie in a 33-24 loss at Ohio State on Saturday, though that offered no comfort.
Certainly, the No. 23 Lions (5-3) didn't trade in moral victories after losing their fifth consecutive game in the series, a point quarterback Sean Clifford made with clarity.
"We lost the game," he said. "I don't know what else to say about that."
But inside the game, Penn State made some strides and traded in a few flaws. Let's review.
Is Sean Clifford the Big Ten's most valuable player?
Penn State's third-year starting quarterback looked as healthy as he has since taking a big hit at Iowa, moving with confidence, standing firm in an often-collapsing pocket and taking some more upper-body cracks.
Clifford completed a career-high 35 passes, the most for a James Franklin-coached team and tied with Matt McGloin (2012 vs. Northwestern) for the school record. He was 35-for-52 for 352 yards, a touchdown and an interception, extracting every ounce of will he had against the Buckeyes.
That it wasn't enough burned Clifford.
"That’s the worst part, because you feel like you’re getting better and it's just not enough," he 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."
Which prompts the question: Is there another Big Ten player who holds as much dominion over his team's success rate as Clifford? Penn State clearly is a different team with a healthy Clifford, which Franklin pointed out after the game.
The first question of his postgame press conference regarded the difference between Saturday's game and the team's nine-overtime loss to Illinois. Franklin answered, began listening to another question, then interrupted to finish his first thought.
"One of the biggest differences was Sean's health tonight," Franklin said. "Thought that made a big difference."
Penn State's quarterback situation is beyond thin right now. True freshman Christian Veilleux appeared to be the No. 2 quarterback Saturday: He took reps in that spot during pregame warmups instead of Ta'Quan Roberson, who made the trip but spent the game without a helmet nearby.
If the Lions need to make a substitution, they appear ready to try Veilleux, who did not play his senior season of high school football in 2020 because of COVID. That's why Clifford's health is so vital. And why his teammates so value it.
"I know it’s been tough for him," receiver Jahan Dotson said. "It’s never easy going through an injury. For him to be out here battling, giving it his all, showing no signs of weakness, it’s huge for us. I know it’s tough for him. We’ve got his back no matter what, just trying to pick him up every single play, every single day, literally. Just try to go out and play for him and have his back."
Clifford wanted that play back more than any other. He didn't feel the second-quarter pressure from Ohio State's Zach Harrison's blind-side rush and didn't see receiver Parker Washington open behind a blitz. Clifford also couldn't hold the ball while being squeezed between Harrison and fellow Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith.
It was one of four sacks Clifford took and led directly to a touchdown run by Ohio State defensive tackle Jerron Page.
"I wish I would have just dirted it," Clifford said. "It was a split-second decision. I didn't see it, but I've got to protect the ball."
The perils of the big play
Penn State allowed just two touchdowns to the Big Ten's highest-scoring offense, which was a resounding victory. Still, the defense gave up its longest run play and pass play of the season a week after allowing Illinois 12 rushing plays of 10+ yards.
The Lions corralled Ohio State's TreVeyon Henderson until the freshman broke a 68-yard run, the longest against Penn State this season by 40 yards. That preceded a 58-yard completion from C.J. Stroud to Jaxon Smith-Njigba, one of Stroud's three completions of 30 yards or longer. Those plays led to 10 Ohio State points.
The Jahan Dotson Wildcat
After going 1-for-7 on two-point-conversion attempts against Illinois, Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich installed a new play: Dotson in the Wildcat.
Franklin said they put in the play last week and successfully called it in the third quarter, resulting in a Dotson touchdown.
"I knew it was a touchdown as soon as we put it in," Dotson said. "I have that confidence in coach Yurcich, and he has that confidence in me getting the ball on the perimeter."
Dotson also caught a career-high 11 passes for 127 yards.
Penn State held Ohio State to one touchdown in six red-zone trips while going 2-for-3 itself in red-zone touchdowns. The Lions also stopped Ohio State on a 4th-and-goal, holding an opponent without red-zone points for the ninth time this season.
The Lions converted 3rd-and-short (1-4 yards) on five of six attempts, a marked improvement over the Illinois game (2 for 5).
Receiver Parker Washington turned five of his nine receptions into first downs. He also caught nine of his 10 targets and finished with 108 yards receiving.
Linebacker Curtis Jacobs had two tackles for loss for the second time in his last three games.
Ohio State has won 23 consecutive Big Ten games.