Penn State's path to the CFP is as clear as Sean Clifford's health status
It was a game Penn State could afford to lose.
Surviving the aftermath of Saturday’s 23-20 loss at No. 3 Iowa? Well, we’ll see.
The Nittany Lions (5-1) lost their starting quarterback and a few spots in the national rankings in Iowa City.
The question now, with a bye week up next followed by a near-bye home game against Illinois: Can Sean Clifford and Penn State’s swagger return in time for the Nittany Lions’ trip to Ohio State 20 days from now?
Penn State’s first-ever berth in the College Football Playoff was always going through Columbus, anyway — this year, like every year. That’s the nature of playing in the Big Ten East.
The Lions, No. 4 going into their showdown with the No. 3 Hawkeyes, will have plenty of opportunity to climb back into the top 5 over the next couple of months. They’ll have to run the table, which includes dates with unbeaten division rivals Michigan and Michigan State after the Oct. 30 game in Columbus.
Is there any reason to believe Penn State can win the East and then take out Iowa in a rematch in the B1G title game?
Based on what I saw less than 24 hours ago, yes. In fact, the former — winning the East — looms as a much tougher task than the latter.
Frankly, Penn State dominated Iowa in its home stadium while Clifford was in the game, despite the QB throwing picks on 2 of the Lions’ first 3 drives.
Here’s how lopsided the game was after the field goal that followed Clifford’s final play:
- Penn State led 17-3 after just 17 1/2 minutes of game time.
- The PSU offense had racked up 212 yards, putting it on pace for 727 in the game. (I cross-multiplied and divided. Trust me, the math works.)
- Iowa had 49 total yards, and QB Spencer Petras was 1-for-9 for 14 yards, having been intercepted once and sacked twice.
Those trends most likely would have continued, not to the extreme of 727 offensive yards, but enough for Penn State to win handily. Instead, with Ta’Quan Roberson taking the snaps, the Lions fell 440 yards off the pace, finishing with 287.
Roberson has played sparingly since joining the program in 2019, and jumped to No. 2 on the depth chart by default when Will Levis and Micah Bowen transferred during the offseason. He was completely overmatched against Iowa (7-of-21, 34 yards, 2 INTs), and will be against Ohio State if he is forced into action then.
Iowa won with its standard formula: Opportunistic defense, solid special teams, basic offense and grit. Thing is, Penn State matched most of those, even after Clifford went down. Jordan Stout punted 5 times for a 50.4-yard average, better than Tory Taylor’s 44.2 on 9 punts for Iowa. Stout went 2-for-2 on FGs with a long of 44; Iowa’s Caleb Shudak went 3-for-3 with a long of 48. The Penn State secondary played its typical sticky defense, holding Petras under 200 passing yards. The defense overall held Iowa to 305 yards.
Linebacker Ellis Brooks led the unit with a career-high 14 tackles. Jaquan Brisker tied a career-high with 9 tackles while adding an interception and a pass breakup. Arnold Ebiketie was a force off the edge, recording 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack to go along with his season-high 9 tackles. Overall, the Lions had a season-high 11 tackles for loss.
But Iowa was able to turn a few big plays into a 3-point victory because Penn State’s offense ceded field position with 8 false start penalties and plenty more inept play with Roberson at the controls. One of the main issues was that the linemen couldn’t hear Roberson over the raucous black-and-gold-clad crowd.
“He’s not as loud as Sean,” head coach James Franklinn said, “but not to the point where it was a problem [before]. So we’ll we’ll do a deep dive on that.”
Minus Clifford, the other elements that went into Penn State’s 5-0 start remain intact. But unless he comes back, the Lions are headed for a decent bowl at best, not a spot in the CFP. We knew that from the start, and we saw it evermore clearly after the Auburn game.
It’s been Clifford or bust since Day 1 of 2021. Penn State will be brutally ordinary without him. The backs had 19 carries for 46 yards against Iowa behind a merely adequate line that simply doesn’t run-block well.
Penn State’s best-case scenario remains in reach, providing Clifford can recover fully in less than 3 weeks. As No. 1 Alabama’s loss to unranked Texas A&M proved, this is one wild, wide-open college football season. Penn State will be an underdog at Ohio State, but one with a puncher’s chance. So long as it has its main puncher.
Several other players couldn’t finish the game against Iowa, including PJ Mustipher, a huge loss as the Lions are thin at defensive tackle and Mustipher is their best one. The 320-pound senior was on crutches on the sideline in the second half after injuring his left knee.
As for Clifford, it’s possible his injury is to his ribs or back, based on the nature of the hit he took and the way he walked, gingerly, to the locker room.
So we’ll await word, but don’t hold your breath. Under Franklin, Penn State is mum when it comes to injuries. The program doesn’t provide statuses, let alone updates. Maybe the 8th-year coach will make an exception given that he’ll endure about 800 questions about Clifford in the coming days if he doesn’t volunteer some information.
“Cliff has battled and been tough for 3 years now,” Franklin told PSU in-house media guy Mitch Gerber in a brief postgame interview at Kinnick Stadium. “Once the doctor told him he wasn’t able to go, I told him I loved him and to make sure he led on the sideline as much as he could.”
Clifford tried, but his impact wearing a tee shirt sans shoulder pads during the second half was limited, to say the least.
Later, in front of the regular media group, Franklin was asked if he had an update.
“No, I don’t at this stage. As you guys know, I don’t get into injuries a whole lot. … We’ve got a bye week to get some things fixed. Hopefully we’ll get some guys back from a health perspective, and kind of go from there.”
Maybe we’ll know more soon, but Penn State’s biggest goals will hang in the balance until we see if No. 14 is behind center, pads and helmet on, at The Horseshoe.