COLUMBUS, Ohio — It took Sean Clifford longer than most of his Penn State teammates to leave the field late Saturday night at Ohio Stadium, looking around, soaking in his last collegiate game in his home state, experiencing a rush of emotions following his team’s third consecutive defeat.
The fifth-year senior from Cincinnati gave the Nittany Lions a number of chances to finally break their losing streak against Ohio State, throwing 52 passes, amassing 361 yards through the air, and hanging tough against the Buckeyes’ ferocious pass rush. But his two turnovers hurt, and the Lions walked out of the Shoe with a 33-24 loss.
The result, the Nittany Lions’ fifth straight loss to Ohio State, dropped them to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten. They sank to No. 22 in the AP top 25. Penn State begins its November schedule on Saturday at Maryland, and still has nationally ranked Michigan and Michigan State ahead.
After playing at substantially less than 100% in the previous week’s embarrassing nine-overtime loss to Illinois while recovering from an injury, Clifford looked more like himself. He extended plays with his ability to scramble, zipped sharp passes into tight windows, and bounced back up after hard hits, two of which resulted in Ohio State penalties on a drive that led to a third-quarter touchdown and tied the score at 17.
But the Nittany Lions knew they had little margin for error against the No. 5 team in the nation and the mistakes added up. Clifford was stripped in the pocket in the second quarter and 305-pound lineman Jerron Cage dashed 57 yards for a touchdown.
“It was on my blind side,” said Clifford, who also threw an interception in the fourth quarter that led to a field goal. “I wish I would have just dirted it. It was a split-second decision. I didn’t see it, but I’ve got to protect the ball.
“The worst part is, you feel like you’re getting better but it’s just not enough. It’s always on myself. I feel like I could have done something much more just to change the outcome. That’s the toughest part of being a leader, is just battling through your own adversity as well as the team’s. I love these guys to death and I feel terrible.”
Penn State coach James Franklin loved Clifford’s effort in a hostile environment where nearly all the 102,951 were wearing scarlet, but he hated the three-turnover total. The Nittany Lions had not lost a fumble in their first seven games but coughed the ball up twice to Ohio State.
“I thought he battled,” Franklin said. “He took some shots, he made some big-time throws in traffic. He stepped up in the pocket and made some very accurate throws. On third down, I thought he did a really good job of managing that. But we’ve just got to eliminate the turnovers. The turnovers are costly. It’s hard to win when we turn the ball over.”
The Lions, who were converting 33% on third down entering the game, were 11 of 18 (61%) against Ohio State. But their running game continued to be a non-factor, managing just 33 yards counting four sacks of Clifford.
Jahan Dotson, who was shut out for much of the first two quarters but wound up with 11 catches for 127 yards plus a 2-yard touchdown run, said the margin for error was “very little.”
“We know that turnovers kill you no matter who you’re playing,” he said. “But when you’re playing a good football team like them, you can’t give them more opportunities than they already have. We know we have to control the turnover battle, we just have to be better. If some plays went a different way, it could have been a whole different ballgame.”
The defense kept the Lions in the game, forcing the Buckeyes (7-1, 5-0) to kick field goals on four trips into the red zone, including three when Ohio State advanced inside the 10. The 33 points and 466 total yards were less than the Buckeyes’ averages of 49 and 560 entering the game, but explosive plays in the second half were a factor.
Franklin tried to stay positive after the game, telling reporters, “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 get a win next week.”
Clifford was downcast after the game after playing gallantly in front of family and friends but knows he has to put it behind him.
“Yeah, it was tough,” he said. “This is where I’m from. I’m from Ohio. This is a tough one for me. But we’ll battle. We’ll get back to business and get better.”