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Lions ‘left it all on field’

PSU football commentary

COLUMBUS — The pain was apparent in Sean Clifford’s eyes and the brevity of his answers.

As he came off the Ohio Stadium turf Saturday night following the Nittany Lions’ 33-24 loss to the No. 5 Buckeyes, Clifford looked back and spent a few moments of reflection.

The Ohio native completed a career-high 35 passes in 52 attempts for 361 yards a touchdown, a strong comeback from a week ago when his performance was compromised due to injury and led to a shocking loss to Illinois.

“This is where I’m from, Ohio,” Clifford said softly. “It’s a tough one for me.”

The Illinois game had lowered, considerably, optimism for competing with Ohio State and the prospects for the remainder of the season.

And yet, Clifford and the passing game performed gamely as he repeatedly found Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, who combined for 20 catches and 235 yards.

Plus a defense that was bludgeoned by lowly Illinois, allowing an ungodly 357 yards rushing, hung tough, especially against the run, and repeatedly forced Ohio State into field goals.

“We left it all on the field,” Clifford said.

Though prideful of that, it was no consolation to Clifford on his last trip home and likely his final chance to beat the Buckeyes, who have won five straight in the series. (Clifford could return for 2022, but that’s up in the air).

Asked what lessons can be learned from Saturday night, Clifford didn’t blink.

“We lost the game,” and when someone tried to follow up, Clifford reiterated, “We lost the game.”

Clifford was most disappointed in his two turnovers, a strip sack that was returned for a touchdown and a 17-7 Ohio State lead shortly before halftime and his interception with the Lions down 27-24 early in the fourth quarter.

“It was on my blind side,” he said of the fumble. “I wish I would have just dirted (spiked) it … I didn’t see it. I’ve got to protect the ball. Turnovers hurt us.”

But the Lions didn’t lose because of Clifford, who was sacked four times and under pressure most of the night. In fact, he kept them in the game.

Their defense, too, turned in a strong effort, yielding just two touchdowns to the explosive Buckeye offense.

“Everybody in our locker room felt we should have won last week,” cornerback Joey Porter Jr. said. “We didn’t get the outcome tonight, but I felt we fought harder.”

James Franklin, now 1-7 against Ohio State with five straight losses, praised his team’s effort — “we played hard and gave ourselves a chance to win” — and found positives amid defeat.

But disappointment etched his face, too.

“We didn’t play good enough to win tonight, but we’re close,” he said. “I’m going to keep working with these guys, loving these guys, and we’ll find a way to win next week.”

Even if they didn’t win, the Lions passed the leadership test in bouncing back from Illinois with an admirable, more willful showing at the Horseshoe.

But now they’re riding a three-game losing streak, and they’ll figure to have less emotion at Maryland, even though the Terps won last year, than they did here.

Hence, the roles of Clifford, Dotson and the upperclassmen will be magnified through November.

“The season is far from over,” Dotson, whose 11 catches marked a career high, said. “We have a lot of guys who aren’t just going to give up. As a leader, I just want to make sure these guys stay on track. I saw a lot of good things from our offense today.”

It’s frustrating, Clifford said, because, “You feel like you’re getting better, but it’s not enough. The toughest part of being a leader is battling through your own adversity as well as the team’s.”

He paused and added, “I just … feel terrible.”

Arnold Ebiketie transferred from Temple so he’s experienced losing before.

“We know we’re better than this,” he said. “We put a lot into this, going back to last season. It hurts, but it’s supposed to hurt.”

As Ebiketie, Clifford and their teammates left the darkness of the tunnel leading to the team buses at Ohio Stadium, that hurt was on full display.

Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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