Sean Clifford is a fighter. The Penn State quarterback repeatedly showed his willingness to run at the Ohio State defense, scraping his body off the Beaver Stadium grass 18 times – 13 runs and scrambles and five sacks – on a night that included several hard shots after which rising to his feet had to hurt.
So even though the Nittany Lions already are out of the running for the Big Ten championship and the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff as the only East Division member with zero wins, and fell out of the top 25 Sunday for the first time in four years, Clifford will keep battling.
And he wants to make sure his teammates are with him.
“If you’re not motivated right now, I don’t really want you on the team,” he said Saturday night after the Lions lost, 38-25, to the third-ranked Buckeyes. "That’s just a fact. If you aren’t motivated when your back is against the wall, you’re going to fold and say, ‘We’ll get them next year,’ I don’t want you here.
"Right now, I’m more motivated than ever. People are going to talk. Our Big Ten hopes aren’t there probably like we wanted them. But the last thing I’m going to do for this program, these coaches, this university, is blame it on COVID, blame it on this or that. That’s not how I operate.
“This is a winning program with an 0-2 start. We’re going to get back on track and work harder this week.”
In falling to their first 0-2 start since 2012, Penn State broke a 63-week streak of appearing in the AP poll dating back to when it defeated Ohio State in 2016. The streak includes only the polls for which the Lions were eligible.
The Nittany Lions simply ran up against a better team Saturday night. They gained only 166 total yards in the first three quarters and trailed 31-13. They found more of a flow in the fourth quarter, with Clifford and Jahan Dotson connecting for two of their three touchdown passes, and amassed 159 yards of offense.
For most of the night, however, it was a case of Clifford not getting the protection he needed and Penn State not being able to get upfield with its receivers against the talented Ohio State secondary.
Lions head coach James Franklin said the plan going into the game was having Clifford more involved in the run game, but it didn’t work too well. Clifford’s longest rush was for 11 yards. Counting the five sacks, he carried 18 times for only 5 yards.
Franklin said it was hard to judge Clifford’s performance because he had "people in his face all night long.
“I thought the amount of times he got hit and got pressured in the pocket, I thought his toughness was on display,” Franklin said. “It’s something that he’s done for a couple of years now and I was impressed with that. But obviously we’ve all got to get better, all of us.”
Overall, Penn State’s running game was anemic, gaining just 44 yards in 27 attempts. Clifford, who was 2-of-7 for 29 yards in the first half, finished 18-of-30 for 281 yards. Dotson caught eight balls for 144.
But after falling into a 14-0 hole with just over six minutes elapsed in the game, the Lions didn’t have enough to dig their way out. Clifford, who played a much better second half than first half a week earlier at Indiana, knows the need for more consistency.
“We’ve got to jump out early,” he said. “Last week we had a TD drive [on the first possession] and then nothing. So we’ve got to figure it out in the first half for sure. We can’t be a second-half team.”