IOWA CITY, Iowa — No. 4 Penn State found out what life without quarterback Sean Clifford was like on Saturday in its Big Ten showdown with No. 3 Iowa, and it wasn’t pretty.
Clifford, who took a hit from linebacker Jack Campbell early in the second quarter, spent the rest of the first half in the locker room and came out after halftime sporting a blue T-shirt, meaning he was done for the day.
The Nittany Lions (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) got a field goal on the play after Clifford’s injury to take a 17-3 lead but they managed only one field goal after that and lost to the Hawkeyes, 23-20, before a raucous sellout crowd at Kinnick Stadium.
Ta’Quon Roberson replaced Clifford and showed the nerves of a redshirt sophomore playing in a big game for the first time. He threw two interceptions — the third and fourth of the day for Penn State against an Iowa (6-0, 3-0) team that came in with 12 picks — and led an offense that gained only 95 yards in the second half.
The Nittany Lions also suffered eight false start penalties with Roberson as the quarterback, a clear sign that the first unit wasn’t accustomed to working with him.
“Obviously Ta’Quon getting his first real-game experience backed up to the 1-yard line and the 2-yard line multiple times, it did not make it obviously an ideal situation for a guy getting his first significant time,” head coach James Franklin said.
“I thought the one time we were able to go [with] some tempo stuff, we made some plays with legs, we went down and kicked the field goal, which was significant at the time.”
Franklin was referring to Jordan Stout’s 44-yard field goal in the third quarter that gave Penn State a 20-10 lead, the only points the team scored in the second half.
“Their offense had great field position the entire second half and our offense did not,” Franklin said. “That’s kind of how the game went.”
The Lions also lost defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, the anchor of their defensive line, with an apparent knee injury. Franklin said the team also lost running backs John Lovett and Devyn Ford, and safety Jonathan Sutherland with injuries during the game.
Franklin said he had “a little bit of a hard time” with Iowa fans, and coaches and staff, for booing players who went down after plays with apparent injuries.
“They don’t run a tempo offense,” he said. “It was not part of our plan. Obviously we didn’t want Cliff, PJ, Lovett, Ford and Sutherland, guys that play significant football for us, to get injured.
“To all the Iowa people out there, it was not part of our plan. It would not be. You don’t run a tempo offense. We had some guys get injured and I don’t know if I necessarily agree. I don’t think that’s the right thing for college football booing guys when they get hurt, however it looks. If one of those kids would have been significantly hurt, you’re booing them, I’ve got a hard time with that. But I’ve got my own issues to deal with.”
The defense forced nine punts, but the Iowa special teams were strong, and the Hawkeyes scored the go-ahead touchdown with 6 minutes, 26 seconds to play after Penn State punter Jordan Stout’s shortest effort of the day.
The 36-yard punt put Iowa in business at the Lions 44 and Spencer Petras hit Nico Ragaini for a 44-yard score. Penn State’s last drive of consequence was halted on downs at the Hawkeyes’ 45.
The Nittany Lions lost three players to injury in the first half but none more important than Clifford, whose injury was not specified. He took a big hit from Campbell early in the second quarter and did not play the rest of the first half, spending much of that time in the locker room getting treatment. He came out after the halftime break out of uniform. Roberson took his place, but was able to lead the Nittany Lions to just one field goal in his first eight possessions at the helm. The ninth happened after Iowa took a 23-20 lead, and after driving from their 25 to the Iowa 47, the Lions fell short on a fourth-and-3 when Roberson’s pass to Keyvone Lee gained only 2 with 3:39 to play.
Key injuries slow the Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions lost two other key players to injuries in the first half — Mustipher, the anchor of their defensive line, and safety Jonathan Sutherland. Mustipher suffered an apparent left knee injury on the fifth play of the game, and Sutherland was shaken up late in the first half and never returned. Mustipher needed help to get to the locker room at halftime and returned to the sideline in the second half on crutches. Other Penn State players who had to leave the game in the first half were wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith, safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive tackle D’Von Ellies (Mustipher’s replacement), and defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, but all returned. Running back John Lovett watched the second half in street clothes.
How many false starts did Penn State have?
Would you believe eight? Roberson’s entry into the game in the second quarter was a clear case of nerves. He took the field after an Iowa touchdown that cut the Lions’ lead to 17-10, and showed his nerves. Roberson dropped his first snap and fell on the ball and threw a short pass that Campbell almost intercepted. A combination of crowd noise and the relative unfamiliarity with Roberson’s cadence resulted in three consecutive false start penalties that set the ball back to the 7. Roberson threw an interception on his next series, a deep ball that Iowa’s Riley Moss caught at his 45. Even running out the clock from deep in their own territory turned out to be a chore for the Lions, with a false start penalty moving the ball back to the 3. The Lions safely made it to halftime without any more drama. For the game, Roberson completed 7 of 20 passes for 34 yards and ran 10 times for 27 yards.
Special teams tell the tale
Iowa’s special teams had the advantage in the game, which proved to be big as the contest progressed and the Hawkeyes kept chipping away at the deficit. Hawkeyes punter Tory Taylor pinned the Nittany Lions back inside their 10 five times, and on most of those possessions Roberson had to dig them out of the hole. In addition, Caleb Shudak kicked three field goals, the last two of 48 and 36 yards getting Iowa closer and closer. Stout punted five times for a 50.4-yard average and went 2-for-2 on field goal, successful from 32 and 44 yards.
Iowa doing what it does
The Hawkeyes got an immediate break on the Lions’ first play from scrimmage when Clifford, throwing from his own end zone, was intercepted by linebacker Seth Benson at the Penn State 8, but they had to settle for a field goal. Two other interceptions recorded by Iowa in the first half resulted in zero points. But the Hawkeyes do what they do, which is solid defense, a knack for turnovers, and an offense that won’t dazzle you but will strike suddenly, as with the game-winning touchdown pass. After hitting just 1 of his first 9 passes, Petras’ totals for the game were 17 completions in 31 attempts for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State converted his one interception into a touchdown, but there were no other free gifts from Iowa.