Sometimes things are not as bad as they seem and then other times, they are. If you are reading this article then that means that you are alive, unless of course you are a ghost reading this column over the shoulder of a living person. Either way, we should take a step back and be thankful that there are football games to watch. Careful stepping back if your ghost is leaning in too far, you may feel a chill.
The game on Saturday provided entertainment during the second half. Shaka Toney and Adisa Isaac had back to back sacks to end the first Iowa possession with their team trailing by 17 points, needing a spark. It took the Lions most of the third quarter to find their way and when Sean Clifford entered in relief of starter Will Levis, things went well.
Clifford completed his first two throws for touchdowns and just like that the Lions were within 10 points with the entire fourth quarter to play. That was about as good as it got for Penn State fans, as Iowa slowly pulled further away, first with a field goal, then with an interception return by a very large player.
While coach James Franklin’s team has yet to win a game through five attempts, all but one, the loss to Maryland, contained moments that were entertaining and a hope that the team would come back to win well into the fourth quarter. It’s understandable that fans want the team to win but at the very least there have been five weekends this fall that we were able to put more serious things aside and enjoy, if that’s what you would call it, a football game.
The Lions have started slow in a few games this year so maybe that will translate to the games themselves. Penn State lost the first half of the season 0-5 but if they can turn a corner, with a little luck, they might finish strong in the second half. There is so much that the team cannot control, even whether it plays the final four games including the Big Ten Championship Week game.
I know that few people feel that there is a strong chance that the team will turn things around, but if they do, it is still possible to avoid a losing record. Sure, it would take winning the final three games, then winning the match-up during championship week. If the team does that it might just get an invitation to a bowl game. If it were to win, the team would finish 5-5 and there would be momentum for the program. Fans would have just as many weeks left this year to enjoy the taste of victory as they have already tasted defeat.
It’s a long-shot that the team will even get to play its next four games with the circumstances that have unfolded around the rest of the NCAA football world. It will take some luck and also reliance on things that the team does not control, such as its opponent staying away from testing positive for COVID. It’s been a crazy time to be alive, this football season. I can’t speak for any ghosts that may be reading over your shoulder at this moment but I bet 2020 has even been a crazy time to not be alive.
Stats and Storylines
The story of the game early was that Iowa’s offensive line dominated Penn State’s defensive line. At the end of the first quarter it was 7 to 3 with the Lions leading but the Hawkeyes were beginning to throw Brent Pry’s front 7 players around at will. It didn’t help that Pry’s safeties played a down game, a recurring theme this season.
The second quarter began with an Iowa touchdown and from there it went downhill for James Franklin’s squad. After the teams swapped punts, Will Levis fumbled and Iowa recovered just 41 yards from the end zone. The teams swapped punts again and while it remained a 10-point game, Kirk Ferentz’s offensive line was pushing the Lions around. With just 11 seconds to go before the half, Iowa scored again to take a 17-point lead.
The Lions were able to cut it to 10 but turnovers doomed them on Saturday as they have haunted the team all year. After a hold by Brent Pry’s defense, Levis lost another fumble on the first play of the next series, handing Iowa the ball in their own territory again.
Levis was sacked and fumbled again to end the next drive, this time the ball was recovered by a teammate but it still ended the hope of cutting into the lead. Iowa scored again to extend the lead to 31-13. It looked at that point like the game was over.
That was when Sean Clifford entered and got the team back to within 10, only to toss the ball away and then jog alongside the ball carrier as Iowa returned an interception for the game-clinching touchdown. I’m not big on criticizing individual players but I feel that the effort that Clifford gave after throwing the interception is indicative of one of the problems that have plagued Penn State at times this year.
It’s understandable that Clifford was disappointed, having thrown an interception, but as a leader of the team, he has to give his maximum effort at all times when he is on the football field. There have been times when the team did not appear to have their heart in the game and when the leader of the offense displays such sentiment, it rubs off on the rest of the team.
Clifford has shown that he is a good athlete over the past couple of seasons and I understand that he wasn’t 100% enthusiastic at the moment that he was pressed into duty to try to make a tackle to keep his team in the game. Clifford had a good angle but he slid past the runner. Okay, that might have been his being unfamiliar with the defensive side of the ball, maybe we can give him the benefit of the doubt. But there is no doubt that he did not run his hardest after that, giving up somewhere around the 25 yard line. That is not something that you want to see out of a team leader.
Clifford is a good player, he led the team to an 11-2 record last season including a Cotton Bowl win. It’s not fair to blame him or any one player for all that has gone wrong with the Lions’ season. The lack of effort from Clifford, on several occasions following a turnover, is not a winning trait. The high number of turnovers this year alone could be blamed for the lack of success.
This game could have gone in the win column for the Lions had they not given Iowa the ball on their own side of the field twice and also a defensive touchdown. The games against Nebraska and Indiana were similar; had Penn State simply survived each drive to punt the ball away, they might have won.
- The Lions gave up 3.8 yards per rush while only gaining 1.8 yards per run. The Lions’ lines were dominated at times. Iowa is built on their offensive line strength as Kirk Ferentz used to be an NFL offensive line coach and he had two sons that played offensive line for him at Iowa. It’s in their DNA, but Penn State could have competed harder than they did.
- Penn State was perfect in the Red Zone after struggling all season once the offense got close to the end zone. The only problem was that the team only made it to the Red Zone one time. Iowa was 5 of 5 and led with a 31-7 scoring margin in the Red Zone.
- The Lions did not fare well on the ground after getting nearly 200 yards from its running backs a week ago. Will Levis led the way with 34 yards on 15 carries. Clifford had 13 yards on 6 carries. The trio of backs combined for just 16 yards.
- Will Fries and Mike Miranda each recorded a solo tackle, which would be great if they were not offensive lineman.
- Jordan Stout averaged 45.2 yards per punt and continued to kick the ball through the end zone on kickoffs. His leg is a valuable commodity and he has a bright future. He came in averaging 64.8 yards per kickoff. As a 22-year old junior with professional possibilities, this may be the last we see of him. If he were to return for his senior season it would be like having an NFL player out there. Blake Gillikin made the 53-man roster for the Saints before sustaining a back injury that should keep him out for the rest of the season. The Lions have been blessed with strong-legged punters in recent years.