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Penn State’s inexperienced backup quarterback had tough sledding at Iowa

When Sean Clifford left in the second quarter with an injury, Ta’Quan Roberson entered his fifth game in a Penn State uniform, but first against a ranked opponent on the road. It didn’t go well.

Penn State quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson dives for more yards as Iowa linebackers Jack Campbell (31) and Seth Benson (44) make the tackle during the second half Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson dives for more yards as Iowa linebackers Jack Campbell (31) and Seth Benson (44) make the tackle during the second half Saturday.Read moreMATTHEW PUTNEY / AP

Since becoming Penn State’s starting quarterback, Sean Clifford never worried about running with the football and neither did fans of the Nittany Lions, knowing that backup Will Levis was gaining experience in practice to serve as a capable backup for the 2019 and 2020 seasons in the event of injury.

But when Levis transferred last February to Kentucky, and coach James Franklin found no success browsing the NCAA transfer portal for an experienced No. 2 quarterback, the concern grew that Clifford’s running might cost him someday, even if Clifford did not share that concern.

“I just think about playing football, making plays, being the best I can be for this team so we can stack these wins,” Clifford said at the team’s media day last August. “I don’t think about injury. That’s the last thing I probably think about. I’m going to do what I’ve got to do to win the game. If it means run the ball 100 times, I’m going to run the ball 100 times.”

When injury finally struck Clifford, however, he wasn’t running with the football. He had just released a pass in the pocket early in the second quarter Saturday at Iowa when Hawkeyes linebacker Jack Campbell delivered a hard, clean shot to his right rib cage that drove Clifford’s left (non-throwing) shoulder hard into the turf.

Clifford left the bench for the locker room shortly afterward and never returned to the game. Ta’Quan Roberson, appearing in only his fifth game since joining the program in 2019, took over for the first time in a pressure situation against a quality opponent. The inexperience showed.

Leading 17-3 when Clifford departed, the Nittany Lions managed just three more points and lost, 23-20, for their first loss of 2021. With Franklin not releasing any information on the injury after the game or since, it remains to be seen how Penn State will handle the quarterback situation if Clifford misses significant time.

» READ MORE: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz: Fans booed on some Penn State injuries because they ‘smelled a rat’

Franklin was expected to meet with the media after practice Wednesday night, meaning some information on Clifford could be forthcoming.

Franklin had discussed the possibility of finding an experienced quarterback in the transfer portal, but admitted he wanted to be careful.

“If a quarterback becomes available, we would be open to it,” he said at Big Ten football media day in July. “But I’m also not going to take a guy just to take a guy, because that could stunt the development of the guys we have in our program. So that’s one of the things where you have to be careful with the transfer portal, that you take someone just to get to a certain number and he’s not the right fit, or he’s not the right fit for your organization.

“There’s been a number of guys that we could have taken and for whatever reason, doing our research, doing some background checks in terms of conversations and watching film or workouts or whatever it is, it just has not made sense for us to move in that direction.”

The Lions were in the running for former Louisiana State quarterback T.J. Finley during the offseason, but Finley chose Auburn. Finley started five games for LSU last season as a freshman and has seen action in five of Auburn’s six games this year. How much of a chance Finley would have been given to compete for the starting job at Penn State is anyone’s guess.

In addition to Levis, the Nittany Lions have had two other quarterbacks transfer since 2019 – Michael Johnson Jr., who came in with Roberson, then moved on to Florida Atlantic, and Micah Bowens, part of the freshman class of 2020, who transferred to Oklahoma.

The two scholarship quarterbacks behind Clifford, Roberson and freshman Christian Veilleux, competed for the backup job in training camp. Franklin said he was looking for consistency and eventually chose Roberson, who was 4 of 7 for 51 yards this season in mop-up roles against Ball State and Villanova.

To his credit, Roberson faced the media at Iowa after a tough day that saw him complete just 7 of 21 passes for 34 yards with two interceptions. He was a part of an offense that was flagged eight times for false starts, and he did not lead the Lions to a single successful third-down conversion in 11 opportunities. He ran 10 times for 27 yards.

Some of his comments:

  1. On coming into the game: “Our program is always a next-man-up mentality, so when Coach gave me the nod, I knew it was time to go.”

  2. On the frustration of three straight false starts: “It’s always the next-play mentality, so whatever happened on the last play, we’ve got to put it behind us and, yeah, next-play mentality.”

Penn State does not play again until Oct. 23 against Illinois at Beaver Stadium, meaning the squad has extra time to regroup and heal from injuries.