The Penn State offense has suffered through much adversity in its last two games, and not only because Sean Clifford isn’t Superman.
The durable and gutty fifth-year senior quarterback has shown his toughness time and again taking some hellacious shots, whether it’s in the pocket trying to find an open receiver or dashing into the secondary with would-be tacklers seeking that big hit.
However, a clean shot to the ribs from Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell in the Oct. 9 game won 23-20 by the Hawkeyes knocked Clifford out of the game and changed the arc of a Nittany Lions season that saw the team start 5-0 and move up to No. 4 in the country.
The Lions offense has had no answers since. Ta’Quan Roberson, who had yet to take a significant snap despite being in his third year in the program, led the unit to just one field goal in two-plus quarters on the field at Iowa.
Clifford returned Saturday at much less than 100% in a nine-overtime loss to Illinois and did not run the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, keeping his bruised upper body out of harm’s way and leading some to wonder if a 100% Roberson might have been a better option.
The good news is that Clifford said Wednesday he expects to be at full strength for the No. 20 Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) on Saturday night. The bad news is that No. 5 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0) will be the opponent on its home field in Columbus with an offense that averages 49 points a game going against a team that has scored 38 points in its last two contests.
What Penn State needs to get fixed — still — is its run game. The Lions rushed for just 62 yards against Illinois, failing to take the pressure off Clifford even if head coach James Franklin wanted to emphasize the run.
“When you have a shift or you have a change or you have some injuries, and you have to rely more on other things, then that becomes challenging, especially when you’re not running the ball the way you need to,” Franklin said. “That was the plan, to run the ball a little bit more and take some pressure [off the quarterback]. We weren’t able to do it effectively enough to really be able to dictate the terms of the game.”
Clifford said he’s not worried about pressure, that he’ll do whatever it takes to get the offense rolling again.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to get the job done,” he said, “whether that be in the throw game or the run game. I have a lot of trust in the offensive line, the running backs, the wide receivers, everybody, to get their job done. So it’s just a 1-0 mentality trying to figure out what works. If we need to run the ball, then we need to run the ball. If we need to throw the ball, we need to throw the ball. So I’m not going to get too caught up in specifics.”
Penn State’s running backs continued to struggle. Last week’s starter, sophomore Keyvone Lee, left the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury and did not return. Devyn Ford sat out last week after being injured against Iowa. Noah Cain, the only tailback to play in the overtimes, led the team with 43 yards in 11 carries.
Of course, the Lions are a better team with Clifford using his legs to extend a play or take off if there’s an opening. He was trying to avoid the big hits last week because “I know my body,” but won’t hesitate this week to take risks if means a big gain.
“I’m going to have to make plays that are there,” he said, “and if that means sacrificing my body for a first down or a touchdown, I’m going to do it.
“I think for sure you’ll see a difference. I feel a lot better. Obviously I think that my game also adds being able to run. That’s what I pride myself on … being able to make those plays when the pocket’s breaking down and you need that extra few yards. I’m looking to have that back to 100% on Saturday and be able to extend plays when they need to be extended.”
Clifford was named Wednesday as one of 13 finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy, recognizing a premier scholar-athlete for academic success, football performance, and leadership. Each finalist receives an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship, with the winner of the award having his scholarship increased to $25,000.
Clifford, who owns a 3.45 grade point average in public relations, said he was “really excited to be a finalist” but added, “It’s tough to sit back and look at any sort of accolade or any sort of trophy or anything like that when you have such a big game coming up this Saturday.”