SAUBER: Is it time for winless Penn State to make a change at quarterback?
Pat Freiermuth ran down the sideline, just in front of. the Maryland bench, wide open early in Saturday's game against the Terrapins.
The junior tight end looked back for the ball, tracked it, and watched it fall a few yards in front of him.
Freiermuth threw his hands in the air.
Whether it was the throw — or something else that happened — the star tight end was clearly frustrated.
He and the rest of the pass-catchers have every reason to be. Redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford struggled to get them the ball when they were open and when he finally started finding them, it was too late.
"Obviously I'm gonna watch the tape, per usual," Clifford said after the loss. "And it's gonna start with myself. I'm not going to point a single finger. There's plays that need to be made and I need to make them. I can't really say one thing in specific, but things need to be changed."
Time for a change?: Clifford's struggles have become a theme of this iteration of the Nittany Lions and they're part of the reason the team is 0-3 after an embarrassing 35-19 loss to the Maryland Terrapins Saturday night. His play warrants questions about whether he can take this team where it wants to go, or if a change is needed.
Saturday evening was very much a continuation of Clifford's play from the season opener against Indiana and last week's game against Ohio State. While his stats may look fine at the game's conclusion — 27-of-57 for for 340 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions — the same issues continue to plague the quarterback every week.
He overthrows receivers. He panics at the first sign of pressure. He feels pressure when it isn't there. He throws off his back foot.
Too often, he doesn't play well enough.
Negatives outweigh positives: That's not to say there aren't positives with Clifford. He's capable of making excellent throws — especially on the move — and is willing to play aggressively, utilizing his arm talent. But the negatives outweigh the positives.
So, what's next? Where does Penn State go from here?
If you ask players on the team, nowhere. They believe in Clifford as their leader.
"I feel as though Sean is one of the best quarterbacks in the country," wide receiver Jahan Dotson said after the game. "My mind will not change on that. I see him practice every single day. I see how he works, I see his work ethic. I see how committed he is, how much he loves the game. You can see it on the field. He's a baller. I have all my trust in Sean Clifford and I wouldn't change that for the world."
Frustration mounts: While Clifford has the outward support of his teammates, it's tough to ignore moments like the one from Freiermuth early in the game. Receivers work hard to get open and they rarely get wide open. When a quarterback can't get the ball to them in those rare moments, it takes a toll. The effort and work of the receivers goes for nothing as passes sail over their heads, behind their bodies and skip off the grass in front of them.
To Freiermuth's credit, he didn't blame his quarterback. But he also didn't know why the team wasn't finding success.
"It's the most frustrating thing because we keep asking ourselves, 'What is it? What can we do?'" Freiermuth said. "As players of this program, we want more to do. ... And coaches have given us that. At the end of the day we just don't know."
Why didn't other QBs get a shot on Saturday: Dotson and Freiermuth may be right. Clifford might only be a small part of the problem and not deserve the lion's share of the blame. But they also might not be, which raises the question of why a change hasn't been made. Even in a game like Saturday's — with Maryland beating up the redshirt junior with hit after hit and the game seemingly out of reach — why not give redshirt sophomore Will Levis or even redshirt freshman Ta'Quan Roberson an opportunity?
According to Penn State head coach James Franklin, it was because Clifford earned his chance to finish the game.
"You want to do everything you possibly can with your starting quarterback to give him a chance to be successful and rally the team," Franklin said after the loss. "The guy is in that position, obviously, for a reason. In the second half we still felt like we had an opportunity to go out and get this thing swung in the other direction. And at the time, we felt like it was the right decision."
Franklin has decision to make: So Clifford — who was sporting a wrap on his wrist during postgame media availability for his trouble — finished the game and finished the loss to Maryland. He showed the heart and passion cited by Dotson each time he got off the Beaver Stadium grass and took responsibility for the team's shortcomings in the postgame press conference. But eventually, the work and the passion aren't enough in a results-based industry like college football.
If his struggles persist, Franklin will have to choose between staying loyal to a quarterback who's loved by his teammates and gives it his all, or the more unknown options in Levis and Roberson. There's no tangible proof that Levis and Roberson would be an upgrade over the incumbent.
But if they're not — and Clifford really is the best in the room — then the room might not be good enough to reach the heights the program yearns to grasp.
And that is a much bigger issue than a two-possession loss to Maryland.