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Observations as Penn State plays another poor first half and loses to Iowa, 41-21, for worst start in program history

The Nittany Lions fell behind, 24-7, at halftime and got a spark from quarterback Sean Clifford coming on in relief of Will Levis. But four turnovers proved to be their undoing.

Penn State quarterback Will Levis passes as Iowa defensive lineman Chauncey Golston (57) closes in on Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Will Levis passes as Iowa defensive lineman Chauncey Golston (57) closes in on Saturday.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State hoped it could get off to a better start Saturday against Iowa, and that backup quarterback Will Levis, in his initial start of the season, could lead the team to its first victory.

As it turned out, usual starter Sean Clifford gave the Nittany Lions their spark, throwing touchdown passes on his first two snaps of the game to reduce a 24-point deficit to 10. But the spark died, and the Lions fell to 0-5 – their worst start in the 134-year history of the program – with a 41-21 defeat to the Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium.

The Nittany Lions turned the ball over four more times – two on fumbles by Levis, two interceptions by Clifford – and the Hawkeyes (3-2) showed their gratitude by scoring 24 points off the miscues.

Here are some observations on the game:

Out of the bullpen

Clifford, who had started the previous 16 games for which he was healthy, watched from the bench for 2½ quarters as Levis took over the quarterback duties. But after Levis fumbled on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter, losing one, head coach James Franklin turned to Clifford, and the redshirt junior made things happen right away. Coming in after Lamont Wade’s fumble recovery at the Iowa 28, Clifford’s first play was a 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brenton Strange.

Less than four minutes later, with the ball on his own 32, Clifford pump-faked and launched downfield to Jahan Dotson, who outran two defenders to the end zone to end the 68-yard play and reduce the deficit to 31-21. The magic ended, however, when on the Lions’ next possession, Clifford’s pass was tipped at the line and intercepted by defensive end Chauncey Golston, leading to a field goal. He later threw an interception that 305-pound defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon returned 71 yards to the house.

The Lions unravel again

For the first time since their season opener, the Nittany Lions actually held the lead in a game. A 6-yard run by freshman Keyvone Lee late in the first quarter put Penn State ahead, 7-3. But it took the Hawkeyes only 2 minutes, 36 seconds to regain the advantage, and they clung to it for the rest of the game. The “here-we-go-again” sequence for the Lions on this day came on their last three possessions of the second half – a botched pitch from Levis to Lee that was recovered by Iowa at the Penn State 41, leading to a touchdown; a failure to convert on fourth-and-one from the Iowa 39; and another miss on a fourth-and-two that led to a 49-yard touchdown drive by the visitors that made it 24-7 at the half.

The Nittany Lions have been outscored, 117-33, in the first half of their five games and have trailed by double digits at intermission in all of them.

Slow starts are contagious

Nittany Lions players who were made available to reporters during the week all spoke of the need to get off to a fast start, and said they had to have good practices throughout the week to make sure that happens. Obviously the practice sessions didn’t go too well, and they suffered through their fifth consecutive slow start of 2020. The Lions’ secondary in the first half was picked apart by Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras, who entered the game ranked 106th in the nation in passing efficiency. The defensive front had problems with the Hawkeyes’ running attack, which averaged almost five yards per rush in the first half. A dropped interception by Jaquan Brister early in the second quarter kept Penn State from taking over in Hawkeyes territory. The Lions had just one takeaway in the game, and are minus-9 in turnover margin after a minus-3 showing on Saturday.

Levis good start, bad finish

Levis, a redshirt sophomore who came on early in the second quarter last week for Clifford, got his first start of the season on Saturday and did some good things early. He rushed seven times for 42 yards on Penn State’s touchdown drive in the first quarter, his team’s only lead of the game. But the Iowa defense knew what was coming in the second quarter, mostly Levis runs up the middle, and stopped them. The Lions turned the ball over on Levis’ missed pitch to Lee, and twice more on downs, including a fourth-and-1 when Levis was swarmed for a 1-yard loss. After Levis fumbled twice on the Lions’ first two possessions of the third quarter, losing one, Clifford came on to replace him. Levis finished with 34 yards on 15 carries and completed 13-of-16 passes for 106 yards.