Penn State football: What's up with the two-quarterback system?
Penn State has a quarterback controversy.
No, it’s not about who should be the starter like it was leading up to the game against Iowa, but rather it’s how the Nittany Lions are deploying their top two QBs.
“We don’t really want a quarterback controversy,” James Franklin said ahead of Penn State’s 23-7 victory over Rutgers. “You don’t really want a situation where you’re having to go back and forth, because that obviously means something’s not going [well].”
Instead of establishing one player as the permanent quarterback, something Franklin has done for each of his previous 6 seasons in Happy Valley, his approach on Saturday was to use a pair. Sean Clifford made his second consecutive start since being benched for the beginning of the Iowa game, and completed 15 of 22 passes — 22 also being the total number of passes thrown by the team despite how frequently Will Levis was on the field.
Levis carried the ball 17 times, tying Keyvone Lee for the most carries on the team. He played an entire series in the 3rd quarter without Clifford that resulted in a 3-and-out, and he ultimately rushed for 65 yards. He never threw a single pass, mostly because Rutgers’ offense never put Penn State in a predicament to need to rapidly score points. The question was never if Levis was going to run, it was just ‘will he gain more than 3 yards?’.
Gone is the “Lion” package of seasons past with Tommy Stevens lining up in various positions, and in its place is the “Falcon” package that has been increasingly used in Penn State’s two wins. Against Michigan, Levis carried the ball 6 times for 25 yards and a touchdown, really the first time Penn State had any success this season using Levis, considering his fumble and costly delay of game against Indiana.
While Clifford’s 133 passing yards against Rutgers was the lowest total of his career in games that he’s thrown at least 20 passes, it’s frankly going to be the winning formula moving forward as the Lions finds themselves in a precarious quarterback dilemma.
The phrase “game manager” often carries a negative connotation, but with Penn State lacking any real deep threats outside of Jahan Dotson, and Parker Washington still developing, the offense will have to live with quick slants and crossing routes, combined with a heavy workload by Levis, Lee and Devyn Ford on the ground.
Clifford, who has clearly regressed this season since leading Penn State to an 11-2 record in 2019, was trying too hard to be perfect in Penn State’s first four games. It led him to throwing a career-high in interceptions despite playing less than half the games he did a year before.
“I think that’s probably the biggest issue,” Kirk Ciarroca said earlier this week. “I thought [against Michigan] he really didn’t try to be perfect. He trusted what he saw. What probably contributes to it is that he’s learning a new offense and a new way to think about things. It’s not effort, I can tell you that. It’s not work ethic. We just have to get him to be a little more comfortable and trust what he sees out there and know when not to force the ball.”
The level of competition over the last couple weeks definitely contributed to the recent improvement in Clifford’s play, but his mentality has admittedly changed.
“The first five games, I turned the ball over trying to do too much,” Clifford said on Saturday. “And not managing the game or trying to make plays that I mean, I think that I can still make, but there’s just times where it’s like ‘just check the ball down,’ or ‘you don’t have to force that.’ But instead, I was forcing throws up trying to get too creative.”
Clifford has thrown just one interception since regaining the starting job against the Wolverines. As a team, Penn State has just 2 total turnovers over the last two weeks. So long as Penn State can manage to not shoot itself in the foot, Clifford doesn’t need to be Kyle Trask. He just can’t lose the game.
The offensive line is finally starting to win the battle in the trenches. The Lions have averaged 251 yards rushing over the last two weeks, which would tie them with Ohio State for the best rushing attack in the league.
Penn State fans have become spoiled over the past 4 seasons watching the shiny sports cars of Saquon Barkley and K.J. Hamler, but until Penn State reloads its offensive firepower, a consistent and safe, if not exciting, quarterback system is what the team needs to stay afloat in preparation for 2021.
No, it’s not much fun to watch, but neither was losing five in a row. It may be ugly, but winning cures all ills.