IOWA CITY, Iowa — What started as a trip to the medical tent ended in the slow unraveling of a signature win.
After completing a scoring drive that gave his No. 3 Penn State team a 17-3 lead on the road at No. 4 Iowa, Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback Sean Clifford went into the medical tent. He did not leave the field with trainers or limp into the tent, but he spent the entirety of Iowa’s next offensive possession with the trainers. A few moments later he went into the locker room, and he was in street clothes the next time he appeared in front of the Kinnick Stadium crowd.
Iowa (6-0, 3-0) outscored Penn State (5-1, 2-1) 20-3 from that point on, winning the first top-five matchup in Iowa City since 1985 by a 23-20 score.
“I don’t get into injuries a whole lot,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said after the game.
If Clifford ends up out of action for any significant length of time, the quarterback duties will turn over to backup Ta’Quan Roberson. The sophomore entered Saturday with just seven pass attempts on the season, and he struggled in his first extended action to the tune of just 7-for-20 passing for a total of 34 yards with two interceptions.
“He [offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich] asked me ‘Was I good?,” Roberson said about the aftermath of Clifford’s injury. “Once I said yes, he just said he was not going to change anything else. It just went from there.”
The slow nature of Clifford’s injury was a microcosm of how the game slowly leaked away from Penn State. With Clifford in the game the Nittany Lions were well on their way to scoring a road win over a top five opponent for the first time since 1994, and doing so over a top ten opponent on the road for the first time in eight tries under Franklin.
Instead the offense gained just 95 yards of total offense the entirety of the second half, and an exhausted, banged up Penn State defense was unable to hold down the fort.
Iowa gained its first lead since it was 3-0 early in the first quarter on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Spencer Petras to Nico Ragaini with 6:26 remaining, and Penn State failed to move the ball deeper than the Iowa 45 on any of its three possessions following Iowa’s go-ahead score.
“It’s a next man up mentality and we weren’t ready for that on the road,” Franklin said. “That starts with me; I didn’t have the guys ready for that.”
False Start Woes
On top of trying to fight a stingy Iowa defense, Penn State also had to fight the crowd at Kinnick Stadium. The Nittany Lions were flagged for eight false start penalties, including three consecutive false starts while trying to get a two-minute drill started late in the first half.
“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.”
All but one of Penn State’s penalties in the game were false starts, and four of the false starts came in the fourth quarter while the Nittany Lions were clinging to a 20-16 lead. The three consecutive false starts late in the first half forced a third-and-28 situation that killed one drive, and a pair of false starts after a chop block penalty forced a third-and-29 drive that stalled out another possession late in the game.
“I would say it’s a tough environment,” Franklin said. “Their entire stadium is standing up pouring their energy into the players on the field, and it makes a significant impact. Obviously if it would have been an issue in practice we would have corrected it, so it had not been. He [Ta’Quan] is not as loud as Sean, but to the point where it was a problem. We’ll do a deep dive on that.”
Quarterback was not the only position where Penn State dealt with major attrition. Starting defensive tackle PJ Mustipher only played five snaps before he left the game with an injury, and Penn State also spent periods of the game without defensive tackle Dvon Ellies and safety Jonathan Sutherland. In spite of everything, Penn State held Iowa to just four yards per play and gave the offense two chances to win with stops after falling behind 23-20.
“Every single practice we try to go out there and compete, push each other, get better,” Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks said. “Personally I believe we attacked preparation the way we should’ve, but obviously there’s always room for improvement. Things didn’t swing our way today, so that’s a telltale sign that there’s some things we’ve got to be better at. I’m excited about this bye week and getting better.”
Penn State spent the majority of the second half on the backfoot in the field position battle after short possessions from the offense, but only yielded two field goals and a touchdown in spite of it. The sudden change defense also preserved the game for the Nittany Lions all afternoon. Iowa—who led the nation in interceptions coming into the game—intercepted Penn State four times in the game. But the Hawkeyes only scored a total of three points off the four turnovers, and gained a total of seven yards on the four possessions immediately following interceptions.
“Coming out there looking at the rest of the defensive guys we knew they weren’t going to score,” defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said about the sudden change situations. “That’s the standard; that’s what we do. We were able to hold them to a field goal [after the first interception] kind of changed the momentum, and the offense was able to score the next drive.”
Clifford’s injury status is still the biggest question mark for Penn State as it moves into the second half of its season, but the defensive play in Iowa City is cause for optimism heading forward regardless of what the quarterback situation is going forward.
“It’s not difficult at all,” Penn State linebacker Curtis Jacobs said about the short fields. “Every time we take the field we have the mentality of ‘make a play, get us the ball’ so we just come out every play and give our all.”
As always in Big Ten action, special teams were a huge factor in the game. Iowa punter Tory Taylor pinned Penn State’s offense inside its own 10 on five separate occasions, giving the Nittany Lions an average starting field position at its own 21. Iowa’s average starting field position was its own 40, and eventually the difference took its toll on a battered Penn State defense.
“It was windy man,” Penn State punter Jordan Stout said. “It was a tough game to punt. Tory did a great job; we both did pretty well.”
Taylor finished the game with a total of 398 punting yards, and exited the field to “MVP” chants from Iowa’s student section.
“What a great week for Tory,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “So glad he’s on our team.”
No More Room For Error
Penn State will leave Iowa City with a 5-1 record at the halfway point of the season and head into a very well-timed bye week. The loss at Iowa takes away any room for error in both the Big Ten East and College Football Playoff races, but the Nittany Lions still have big battles ahead against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
“We just lost against a really good football team on the road,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to get some things cleaned up tomorrow, and then we’ve got the bye week to do it as well and kind of go from there.”
Health going into the bye week is the main priority for Franklin’s team, but with or without some of its key contributors the road will not get any easier. This is still a team with aspirations to win championships, and those goals are still in reach at the halfway mark of the regular season.
“I’m optimistic,” Jacobs said. “I feel like we have a shot; we have to come out and be dominant every week, and I feel like we can do that.”
The dominance Jacobs described was on display for the first 22 minutes of the game. Penn State had a 17-3 lead in a hostile road environment and looked set to run the Hawkeyes out of their own stadium.
Two and a half quarters later, Penn State’s players were caught in a sea of black and gold trying to retreat to the visitors’ tunnel in the middle of a field storming.
“I was just feeling how I felt in that moment and holding on to it so I know I can use it to get better,” Burks said. “Football is a game of adversity, and I’m here because of it.”
That moment Burks described has been an all too common sight for Penn State in these heavyweight games. The Nittany Lions are now 0-8 on the road against top ten opponents under Franklin, and will likely face another such game in 21 days at Ohio State.
But now the margin for error is gone. The goals are still within reach, but reaching them will require climbing mountains the program has not submitted in decades.
“The way I evaluate our team is we’re very tough,” safety Jaquan Brisker said. “Whether it’s injuries or anything that comes at us, we don’t ever flinch. That’s what I love about this team. We never really blame each other or anything like that; that’s the sign of a great team. We had adversity early, but that’s fine. We’re going to be back.”
The road back is going to be bumpy, but it still has a possible destination in Indianapolis for the Big Ten or National Championship games.
Now it comes down to not flinching.