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Penn State backup quarterback gets his chance in the season’s most meaningful game

Will Levis answered the call early in the third quarter after Sean Clifford was injured and led the Nittany Lions to 17 points to close an early 21-0 deficit.

Ohio State defensive end Chase Young tackles Penn State quarterback Will Levis, who replaced injured starter Sean Clifford in the third quarter of Saturday's game in Columbus.
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young tackles Penn State quarterback Will Levis, who replaced injured starter Sean Clifford in the third quarter of Saturday's game in Columbus.Read moreJoshua A. Bickel / MCT

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Throughout Penn State’s 2019 season, quarterback Sean Clifford has gotten up from hits no matter how hard they’ve been. But early in Saturday’s third quarter of the Nittany Lions’ 28-17 loss to No. 2 Ohio State, he wasn’t getting up after his right leg folded under him on a tackle by linebacker Malik Harrison.

So, into the Lions’ most-meaningful game of the season, played in front of 104,365 at Ohio Stadium, came redshirt freshman Will Levis, whose only previous action in a competitive contest was three snaps last week against Indiana. It was a tough spot with Penn State already losing 21-0.

The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Levis gave a spark to the ninth-ranked Lions, leading them to 17 points in the quarter that cut the deficit to 4. He made some mistakes in the fourth quarter that were products of his inexperience, including a crucial interception after Penn State had driven to the Buckeyes’ 27.

“We don’t want to force the ball down there, especially when you’re in scoring territory,” head coach James Franklin said. “Will hadn’t had a whole lot of work, and then he gets in against the No. 2 team in the country on the road. We were kind of managing how we were calling the game to help him and play to his strengths. We were going to have to mix passes in.”

Franklin said Levis “did some good things.”

“He gave us a spark,” the coach said. “He made some plays with his legs. He’s a big, physical runner. He was able to push the pile and break some tackles and finish some runs.”

Levis rushed for 34 yards in his first six carries but finished with the same number of yards in 19 carries, counting the five sacks he absorbed.

“When Sean went down, I knew, ‘All right, it’s my time to go,’” Levis said. “I threw a couple balls, and I was ready to go. I was a little nervous the first couple plays, but it all went away. I started having fun going out there and doing my thing.”

Clifford banged up

Franklin said Clifford could have returned to the game, but he opted to keep him on the sideline, noting that Clifford “has not been healthy the last couple of weeks.”

“Sean could have come back, but he would not have come back 100%,” Franklin said. “Will was playing well, so we decided to stay with him. If we put Sean back in, we would have been really lacking mobility. He’s not 100% from a mobility standpoint anyway. That would have been decreased even more.”

Chasing the quarterback

Defensive end Chris Young, returning from his two-game NCAA suspension, was in the Lions’ backfield early and often. The Heisman Trophy candidate had nine tackles, including three sacks and four tackles for loss, and forced two fumbles.

“Early on, I thought we did a pretty good job of managing his impact up until the fourth quarter,” Franklin said, “whether it was squeezing him with the back or sliding to him, mixing in the run game, throwing the quick game. When we got into third-and-longs late in the game, we had a hard time hearing the cadence. That’s not an ideal situation.”

Slade suspended

Sophomore Ricky Slade, one of the Lions’ four running backs, did not make the trip because of what Franklin called a “violation of team rules.” Slade has rushed for just 120 yards in 10 games, the lowest total of the four.

Journey Brown played most of the running-back snaps Saturday, scoring on an 18-yard run and gaining 64 yards in 11 carries, but he dropped a pass inside the 5 on the third-quarter drive that ended with a field goal.