Amid the usual assortment of problems Saturday for Penn State – turnovers, a slow start, lack of execution in the red zone – came a new idea from head coach James Franklin: a quarterback change.
After starter Sean Clifford threw an interception and lost a fumble that Nebraska returned for a touchdown, backup Will Levis came on early in the second quarter and would later provide a spark, almost carrying the Nittany Lions all the way back from a 21-point halftime deficit.
However, after having two chances to tie the score late in the game, the Lions' late effort fizzled out and they lost again, 30-23, to the Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Levis entered the game after Clifford’s eighth turnover of the season, a fumble, was scooped up by Deontai Williams for a 26-yard touchdown that gave the Huskers (1-2) a 24-3 lead. An exchange of field goals made it 27-6 at the half, Penn State’s fourth consecutive double-digit deficit at the break, and second in as many weeks by 21 points.
Seeing his first extended action since last year’s final regular-season game against Rutgers, Levis was rusty but resolute. He completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards, including a 74-yard pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth that set up a fourth-quarter 5-yard touchdown run by Devyn Ford, making it a seven-point game. He also rushed 18 times for 61 yards.
But when it came down to the tying score, Levis and his teammates came up empty. The Lions reached the Nebraska 11 on the possession after Ford’s score, but Levis threw four straight incompletions and the Huskers took over on downs with 3 minutes, 37 seconds left.
Penn State regained possession with 2:34 left at its own 31. Levis completed 5 of 6 passes, including an 11-yard strike to Parker Washington that gave his team first-and-goal at the 9. But Levis then threw two incompletions, took a sack back to the 13, and, on fourth down, was hurried by Nebraska’s Ben Stille and threw a duck that had no chance.
“I needed to buy time to kind of get that ball in the end zone, obviously being fourth down,” Levis said. “But I got the pressure and I couldn’t get away. I kind of made a last-ditch effort to get the ball out, but it really wasn’t much going for me there.”
The Lions rediscovered their ground game in the second half, rushing for 245 yards, with freshman Keyvonte Lee dashing 31 yards for their first TD of the game. The defense improved, limiting the Cornhuskers to three points and getting an interception from linebacker Brandon Smith, the Lions' first takeaway since their opening-game loss at Indiana.
But before then, it was another first-half nightmare, a lack of energy and focus that put the Nittany Lions in a gaping hole. For the third straight week, they allowed a touchdown on their opponent’s first drive.
Redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, a first-time starter at quarterback, accounted for two touchdowns – a 1-yard run and a jet-sweep flip that Zavier Betts took in from 45 yards out.
“It’s the turnovers,” Franklin said. "It’s hard to get into a rhythm. It’s hard to get a groove. It’s hard to call when you don’t have the confidence that you’re not going to turn the ball over.
“We haven’t been creating big plays on the defensive side of the ball, either, with the turnovers. So not only do you have the offense turning the ball over, but us not getting enough of them on defense, it’s not a winning combination.”
Penn State has turned the ball over nine times this season, and is minus-6 in turnover margin.
Red zone problems also hurt. Jake Pinegar kicked three field goals, but the Lions managed just one touchdown on six trips into the red zone. For the season, they are just 8-for-19 on TDs.
“It’s just a lack of detail and execution,” Freiermuth said. “I think that we need to go out and execute a little better in the red zone. That’s pretty ridiculous going in the red zone five times and not executing and not getting in the end zone. It’s something we have to work on and we have to get fixed.”
It should be an interesting week in Happy Valley. Franklin took a lot of questions after last week’s Maryland loss when he did not insert Levis with the game out of hand. Now he must consider who gets the start next Saturday against Iowa at Beaver Stadium.
“Where we were at in that game, with the turnovers and with what’s gone on this season so far, we had to make that change,” he said. “I thought Will did some really good things coming in for us. Obviously that will be a discussion all week long and I know we’ll talk about it later in the week.”
Levis, a redshirt sophomore, wasn’t going to touch the question on his feelings about starting.