IOWA CITY, Iowa – This wasn’t the way Penn State wanted to finish the first half of the 2021 football season.
A Nittany Lions team that posted impressive victories over a pair of nationally ranked teams in the first three weeks experienced real adversity Saturday for the first time all year because of a wave of injuries, the worst being the loss of quarterback Sean Clifford.
In all, counting Clifford and starting defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, the Lions lost five players to injury in their 23-20 loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium that broke their nine-game winning streak and extended the Hawkeyes’ victory run to 12 in a row.
The Associated Press poll released Sunday dropped Penn State (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) three spots from No. 4 to No. 7. The Hawkeyes (6-0, 3-0) inched up to No. 2, trailing only Georgia.
James Franklin met with his players Sunday to plan out Penn State’s bye week with a lot to fix, especially if Clifford has to miss extended time with an injury that the coach declined to describe. At least the team has an extra week to regroup and get healthy before returning to action Oct. 23 against Illinois at Beaver Stadium.
Immediately after the game, however, Franklin was an unhappy man. The chief reason might have been the eight false start penalties assessed against his team with Ta’Quan Roberson in as Clifford’s replacement. Or it might have been the four interceptions – two by Clifford, two by Roberson – that hiked Iowa’s total in that department to 16.
Or maybe it was the Lions’ awful third-down conversion mark of 0 of 10 after Clifford departed. Or that Penn State had just two plays go for more than 20 yards the entire game, or three points and 95 total yards in the second half.
But the complaint Franklin made it a point to express concerned the booing by the decidedly pro-Iowa crowd of 69,250 whenever a Penn State player on defense went down with an apparent injury after a play. They were silent on Mustipher’s injury, which happened on the fifth play of the game.
But later stoppages while Penn State’s athletic training staff assisted safeties Jaquan Brisker and Jonathan Sutherland, tackle D’Von Ellies, and end Arnold Ebiketie ticked off the fans – and some on the Iowa bench, Franklin alleged – with the possibility that the Lions were trying to blunt the Hawkeyes’ momentum on offense. Sutherland was sidelined for the rest of the game, but the others returned.
The Lions also lost running backs John Lovett and Devyn Ford.
“I do have a little bit of a hard time with our players getting hurt and the fans and the coaches and the staff booing our players,” Franklin said. “They don’t run a tempo offense. 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. 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.”
Asked about the booing, Ebiketie said, “I don’t really worry that much about the fans. We know we have a job to do. I was trying to do my job the best I could.”
Roberson, a redshirt sophomore who appeared in the fourth quarter of lopsided wins over Ball State and Villanova, struggled in his first big-time game.
On his first possession, Roberson dropped the snap (he recovered), then had a near-interception, and then endured three consecutive false start penalties. The Lions had one more false start before halftime and four in the fourth quarter, when the crowd was at its noisiest.
“We didn’t have an issue with crowd noise until we lost Sean,” Franklin said. “We’re responsible for all of it. We use the same system with Sean as we did with Ta’Quan and it didn’t work. Obviously it became a significant issue in the game.
“[Roberson is] not as loud as Sean, but not the point where it was a problem. So we’ll do a deep dive on that obviously.”
The defense, which was on the field for 36 minutes, tried to save the day, posting 11 tackles for loss, 3 ½ by Ebiketie, and three sacks. The Iowa special teams had an edge with punter Tory Taylor, who pinned Penn State inside the 10-yard line five times, and at the 12 on another occasion.
The Hawkeyes also controlled the Lions’ star Jahan Dotson, who managed just 48 yards on eight catches, less than half of his 17 targets. His longest gain was only 12 yards.
Penn State is now looking up at other teams in the Big Ten East. Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State all are 3-0 in the conference and will play Penn State in three of the last five weeks of the regular season. There’s a lot to think about and talk about in the days ahead.
“Hey, we’re grateful for the opportunity for guys to get healthy, relax, and watch more film to help us prepare for our next opponent,” defensive end Jesse Luketa said. “Adversity is going to come. It’s going to be a test of our character as a team, as a defense, how we respond to this. Now we have to get back and do what we do.”