Penn State Has Three Weeks to Get Healthy

The No. 7 Lions remain viable Big Ten contenders — if quarterback Sean Clifford is ready for Ohio State.

Penn State began its bye week with a considerable list of questions to address following Saturday's 23-20 loss to Iowa.

Quarterback, of course, is the primary concern, but the Lions must answer others before hosting Illinois on homecoming Oct. 23. Let's address thoughts big and small about No. 7 Penn State.

Three weeks to get Sean Clifford healthy

Quarterback Sean Clifford is the player Penn State least can afford to lose for significant time this season, particularly considering the situation elsewhere at the position. Since head coach James Franklin doesn't address injuries, we're left to read body language and other tea leaves.

Clifford, who left the game in the first half, looked mobile and engaged on the sideline in the second half. And after the game, left tackle Rasheed Walker told reporters in Iowa City that "I'm pretty sure he's going to be good" when asked about the prospect of playing without Clifford.

Though the endorsement certainly wasn't a diagnosis, it seemed at least encouraging. But if Clifford does miss some time, this might be the best stretch to do so.

The Lions (5-1) have the bye and a home game with Illinois before heading to Ohio State on Oct. 30. They stand little chance without him in Columbus.

But the Lions should be able to muster a gameplan to beat Illinois, which fields the Big Ten's worst scoring offense (17.7 points per game) and managed just 93 total yards against Wisconsin.

Best-case scenario: Clifford returns to practice at full strength Oct. 24, one day after Ta'Quan Roberson gets his first career win, however it happens.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was injured in the first half against Iowa and did not return to the game. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was injured in the first half against Iowa and did not return to the game. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

The run game needs to get healthy, too

Penn State's lack of a consistently physical, functioning run game turned its offense even more one-note when Clifford left. Injuries evidently affected the unit as well.

Franklin said that backs John Lovett and Devyn Ford were hurt, leaving Penn State with just two available scholarship backs: Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee. (Caziah Holmes did not make the trip.) And Cain, despite Franklin's insistence last week that the back would be "full go," appears to be laboring through a physical issue.

Penn State's running backs carried the ball 19 times for 46 yards, gaining just 23 after contact. Their longest run in the game was 6 yards (by Lee).

Franklin has said that his run game has "to be more physical." It also needs to get healthy.

A potentially big loss on defense

Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher was on crutches after the game, having left in the first quarter with an injury. Penn State had escaped serious injuries until the Iowa game, but this one would be significant.

Mustipher has been among Penn State's most reliable, consistent and physical defensive players. Last week, Franklin said that Mustipher always plays where he's supposed to, holds his gaps and seldom gets out of position.

The Lions began the season thin on experienced tackles, which made Derrick Tangelo's transfer from Duke so important. Finding a replacement for Mustipher will be difficult.

"It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of PJ Mustipher the football player, the student-athlete, the young man, and the leader in our program," Franklin said. "He does everything right."

'Our defense played their hearts out'

Penn State's defense stood on its head for as long as it could. The group forced a field goal after Iowa made a red-zone interception, forced three punts after Roberson entered the game and grabbed an interception.

But in a game with thin margins, the Lions couldn't keep Iowa from scoring 10 points on two short fields in the fourth quarter.

"I thought our defense played their hearts out," Franklin said. "They were on the field too long, there’s no doubt about that, they were on the field too long. But I thought they played their hearts out."

Penn State's defense made a season-high 11 tackles for loss (Iowa's had two), six quarterback hurries and three sacks. That's on 76 defensive snaps.

Linebacker Ellis Brooks, who played with a cast on one hand, led the team with 14 tackles. Safety Jaquan Brisker had nine (seven solo) along with an interception and a pass breakup. Ends Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa combined for six tackles for loss, with Ebiketie getting 3.5.

Franklin pointed to a few more missed chances (including two second-half interception opportunities) and the coverage lapse on Nico Ragiani's 44-yard touchdown catch. But by that point, the Lions were playing with no margin for error.

Notes and numbers

Receiver Jahan Dotson's streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass ended at six. Iowa obviously trained its defensive focus on preventing Dotson from getting downfield, which worked. His streak of games with a 20-yard reception ended at eight. Iowa made one of its four interceptions on a deep throw from Roberson to Dotson. Penn State targeted Dotson five times in the second half: He had two catches for five yards.

Penn State's win streak ended at nine. The team sought its first 10-game streak under Franklin.

Penn State has lost 12 consecutive road games to top-5 teams.

Iowa held Penn State scoreless in the fourth quarter. Penn State had scored in 21 consecutive quarters dating to the opener at Wisconsin.

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Penn State ponders its past and future at quarterback after loss to Iowa

Rapid Reaction: Breaking down Penn State's 23-20 loss to Iowa