James Franklin really hasn’t presided over a true quarterback competition since taking over as Penn State’s head coach in 2014. That is, until this week.
He chose Trace McSorley over Tommy Stevens in the 2016 preseason, and Sean Clifford got the nod over Will Levis before the 2019 season. In both instances, the quarterback with more years in the program took over the No. 1 duties.
However, this Clifford-Levis duel is different. For the first time in his tenure with the Nittany Lions, Franklin pulled a starter in midgame because he was ineffective, not injured. In this case, Clifford was replaced by Levis, who sparked a comeback Saturday in the Lions' 30-23 loss at Nebraska, a defeat that dropped them to 0-4.
Now all eyes inside and outside of Happy Valley are on who will take the first snap of Saturday’s game against Iowa at Beaver Stadium. Franklin is going to make them wait, and he may not even make the announcement of his choice public before the starter actually takes the field.
“We had some conversations about it this weekend with not only the coaching staff but also with Sean and with Will as well,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly Zoom news conference, "based on what we’re going to do in practice this week and things like that. We’ll evaluate that as the week goes on based on what we do this week, but also on what we’ve done this season and what we’ve done last year.
“Obviously Will came in and did some good things and put himself in this position and he’s earned it, no different than Sean had earned the ability to be our starting quarterback last year and our starting quarterback to start the season. Will was able to come in and earned [the right] to be part of this conversation. It’s not like we have decided or made any announcements yet.”
Clifford, a redshirt junior who has started 16 of Penn State’s last 17 games, threw a first-quarter interception Saturday that led to a Nebraska field goal. He then lost a fumble that Deontai Williams returned 26 yards for a touchdown, the second time in as many weeks Clifford allowed a scoop and score.
Of the Lions' nine turnovers, Clifford is responsible for eight — six interceptions, two lost fumbles.
Levis came on with 11 minutes, 29 seconds left in the second quarter. With Penn State trailing 27-6 at halftime, the redshirt sophomore led the Nittany Lions on drives into the red zone on their last three possessions, one resulting in a touchdown that made it a seven-point game with 9:20 to play.
However, the Lions fell short in their next two drives, which stalled out on the 11 and the 13.
On six trips into the red zone, Penn State kicked three field goals but scored only one touchdown. Levis took all but three of the team’s 25 snaps in the red zone but couldn’t push the ball across, and didn’t help himself by hitting just 1 of 10 passes.
Franklin said Levis needs to work on his touch throwing the ball.
“He needs to get a little bit better on some of his touch, when to take a little bit of the octane off the pass and put it in a position where our guy has a chance to go up and make the play,” he said. “That’s kind of all the little subtle things of playing the quarterback position.”
Overall, Levis completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards and rushed 18 times for 61. Franklin likes the way the 6-foot-3, 222-pound quarterback handles himself in the running game.
“He’s a big, physical runner,” he said. “Not only is he able to make people miss but he tends to fall forward on runs. A couple of the runs, even on short yardage, he got hit even sometimes in the backfield and was able to carry the guy for a yard to get the first down and keep the drive alive.”
Clifford was named honorable mention All-Big Ten last season when he got off to a great start — 1,443 passing yards, 12 touchdown throws and two interceptions in his first five games — but he has been inconsistent since. He threw for 1,211 yards, 11 touchdowns, and five interceptions in his last seven games of 2019, and 896 yards, nine TDs, and six picks in his first four games this year.