Iowa exposes QB depth at Penn State
By Neil Rudel
Football has long operated with the premise that the coaches and the quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame.
Saturday’s Penn State-Iowa game at Kinnick Stadium exhibited that competent quarterbacking — and quarterback preparation — cannot be overestimated.
The Nittany Lions were dealt a painful 23-20 loss, their first of the season, and although their season goals — winning the Big Ten, advancing to the College Football Playoff — remain attainable, what unfolded against the Hawkeyes demands immediate attention.
With starter Sean Clifford at the controls, the Nittany Lions built a 17-3 lead and looked well on their way to a 6-0 record and an earned peek around the corner at a Horseshoe showdown on Oct. 30.
Clifford passed effectively (15-of-25 for 146) and darted for timely first-down runs as the Lions scored on three of their first five possessions and looked worthy of their No. 4 ranking.
Then Clifford was knocked out the game, and Penn State was totally exposed.
Backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson not only couldn’t move the team, too often he couldn’t even start the play.
Roberson fumbled his first snap (he recovered), then the offensive unit was called for three straight false-start penalties.
That was just the beginning. For the game, the Lions were penalized 10 times — eight for false starts, which has to be an NCAA futility record.
None of the penalties came with Clifford in the game, and over the last 42 minutes — 10 possessions — the Roberson-led offense mustered a mere field goal.
Penn State rolled up 221 yards in five Clifford possessions — against Iowa’s vaunted defense — and just 66 yards thereafter.
Penn State makes a big deal about how loud the music is at practice prior to a raucous road venue, and James Franklin did not anticipate the sudden dysfunction.
“We didn’t have an issue with crowd noise — until we lost Sean,” Franklin said. “We used the same system with Sean as we did with Ta’Quan. Obviously, it didn’t work. It became a significant issue in the game.”
Franklin admitted Roberson “is not as loud as Sean, but not to the point where it’s been a problem.”
The Lions still led 20-10 late in the third quarter as the defense, once again, did its part until finally giving up a couple big plays in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense played their hearts out,” Franklin said. “They were on the field too long.”
Franklin knows he’s “responsible for all of it” and pledged “a deep dive” into a remedy heading into a bye week, possibly with Clifford out.
Though Roberson did not account well of himself, this falls on Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
They did not have a Plan B after Plan A was slammed into the Kinnick Stadium turf before a hostile crowd that helped the Lions lose their composure.
Since three of the false starts happened before halftime, the staff had time to get it fixed while still leading, and if the snap count couldn’t be heard, why didn’t they abandon the shotgun and go under center?
“The crowd was just crazy loud,” offensive tackle Rasheed Walker said. “It was just miscommunication between us and the quarterback. It was kind of hard to hear.”
Roberson said his teammates “have my back,” but noted that he hasnÌt’practiced much with the first unit.
When Will Levis transferred — he has led Kentucky to a 6-0 record, by the way — Franklin admitted the transfer portal was an option if a right fit presented itself.
It didn’t, not to mention that two other young quarterbacks, Michael Johnson and Micah Bowens, also left in the past year, leaving the Lions with three scholarship QBs on the roster — Clifford, Roberson and true freshman Christian Veilleux.
Still, even with Clifford out, Penn State was in a position to win this game if only it had an offensive line that could block for the run to keep the pressure off the inexperienced backup.
Then again, in order to run, you do have to execute the snap.
Rudel can be reached at email@example.com.