Penn State Ponders Its Quarterback Future, and Past, After Loss to Iowa

The Lions' playoff chances remain intact. But they also hinge on a position room that has concerns.
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At halftime, when it became clear that Sean Clifford wouldn't return, Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich turned the ball over to Ta'Quan Roberson with confidence.

"He asked me, 'Was I good,' and once I said yes, he just said he's not going to change anything up," Roberson told reporters at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

For all their roster confidence and "next-man-up" expectations, the Lions nevertheless met reality in a 23-20 loss to Iowa. Their season is inextricably tied to the health of their three-year starting quarterback, who left Saturday's game with an unspecified injury in the first half.

Without Clifford, Penn State quickly went from a team that built a 17-3 lead against the nation's second-ranked defense to one that barely could function.

Penn State (5-1) totaled just 95 yards in the second half, had six series that produced 5 yards or less and generated only one drive longer than 3 minutes. Iowa's special teams pinned Roberson and the offense inside the 15-yard line five times, its defense let loose a fierce pass rush and its crowd helped to force an unfathomable eight false starts.

So what now? Franklin said after the game that he hopes a bye week will help the team "get some guys back from a health perspective" before hosting Illinois on Oct. 23. But after that, the Lions head to Ohio State, where they'll need a fit Clifford to have a competitive chance.

With a healthy Clifford, the Lions might have defeated the Hawkeyes by two touchdowns. They probably would have gone better than 6 for 17 passing in the second half. And they certainly would not have faced the communication issues that emerged after his departure.

Penn State did not commit a false start with Clifford under center and ran the same system after he left the game. Of the ensuing eight false starts, six occurred on third down, including three on consecutive plays.

"We didn't have an issue with crowd noise until we lost Sean," head coach James Franklin told reporters at Kinnick Stadium. "We're responsible for all of it. We used the same system with Sean as we did with Ta'Quan, and it didn't work. Obviously, it became a significant issue in the game."

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was injured Saturday against Iowa and did not play in the second half. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was injured Saturday against Iowa and did not play in the second half. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Ultimately, Penn State's offense wasn't ready to run without its No. 1 quarterback, for which Franklin took responsibility. But it wasn't just a Saturday issue. Penn State's quarterback situation has been uncertain for several years — the product of recruiting, transfer and playing-time issues — and reached its peak at Iowa.

The Lions began the season with three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, only one of whom had completed a pass in college. Roberson, a redshirt sophomore, had played few snaps over the past two years and attempted one pass, as a freshman in 2019. True freshman Christian Veilleux did not play his high school season in 2020 due to COVID and has not taken a snap this season.

Three quarterbacks have transferred from Penn State over the past two years. Will Levis, Penn State's No. 2 quarterback, improved to 6-0 on Saturday as the starter at Kentucky. Michael Johnson Jr., who was part of Roberson's 2019 recruiting class, is at Florida Atlantic. Micah Bowens, a 2020 signee, transferred to Oklahoma.

Franklin said earlier this year that he was open to pursuing a quarterback from the NCAA Transfer Portal but didn't find a fit. As a result, Franklin and Yurcich knew the position group faced significant depth and experience concerns after Clifford.

To address that, Franklin hoped to get Roberson into some games early in the season. Trouble was, Penn State played close games with Wisconsin and Auburn that afforded no opportunities.

And Franklin had hoped to give Roberson most of the fourth quarter against Ball State, but a 75-yard touchdown drive cut into that playing time. So Roberson entered Saturday's game having played a few series vs. Ball State and Villanova, having completed 4 of 8 passes in his career and never having played on the road.

He took his first road snap from the Penn State 25-yard line, bobbling the snap in a stadium that was just finding its voice. Kinnick Stadium's frenzy grew from there.

"The crowd was just crazy loud," offensive tackle Rasheed Walker told reporters after the game. "It was just miscommunication between us and the quarterback. It was kind of hard to hear."

Roberson showed grit, but Iowa wore down the offense. The combination of noise, field position and pressure conspired against nearly everything Roberson tried to do. He did rush for 27 yards and led a field-goal drive, but the Hawkeyes otherwise shut down his offense.

Without a run game, a season-long issue, Penn State placed further stress on its quarterback. The Lions ran for 107 yards, but the running backs accounted for just 46 of those. Receiver Jahan Dotson was targeted 17 times but finished with just eight receptions for 48 yards. The Lions crossed their 30-yard line just twice on eight second-half drives.

Last week, Yurcich said Roberson has good "pop," "explosion" and whip with his arm but still was learning about protections and composure and "the finer things." The offensive coordinator said he loves watching Roberson throw the ball but wants him to take more strides with the rest of his game.

"So we try to put him in situations throughout the week where we challenge him," Yurcich said. "We've been doing that for a while now, and boy, I am excited for what's in his future."

After the most stressful game of his career, Roberson deserved credit for how he handled the postgame, meeting the media in a difficult circumstance. He answered every question and kept his focus on that future.

"I know my teammates got my back, and I've got their back," Roberson said.

Penn State's playoff chances certainly didn't end in Iowa. Should the Lions win out (beating Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the process), they will earn a trip to the Big Ten title game — and a likely rematch with Iowa. Imagine the state of mind with which they would play that game.

But Saturday's game illustrated just how much Penn State needs Clifford. And also how much it needs to improve the overall situation at quarterback.

Little wonder, then, that Franklin has recruited two top quarterbacks to the 2022 recruiting class.

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