Penn State head coach James Franklin won't publicly commit to a starting quarterback

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Will Levis (7) in action against Rutgers during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

If James Franklin knows who his starting quarterback will be Saturday, he's sure not going to tell Iowa just yet.

Penn State's head coach wouldn't commit to a change at starting quarterback during his weekly press conference Tuesday, three days after turnover-prone starter Sean Clifford was benched in the second quarter after a strip sack.

Backup Will Levis entered the game and sparked a near comeback, though he struggled through some woes in the red zone in a 30-23 loss, Penn State's fourth straight to start the season. With the longtime thorn-in-the-side Hawkeyes coming to Beaver Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Franklin said he needs more time to determine if a change at the top of the depth chart at the position is the best prescription to remedy what has ailed the Nittany Lions offense.

"We have not made that decision or announced that decision yet," Franklin said. "Obviously, we had some conversations about it this weekend with not only the coaching staff but also with Sean and with Will as well, based on what we're going to do in practice this week and things like that. We'll evaluate that as the week goes on."

Levis entered the game in the second quarter with the Nittany Lions trailing, 24-3. The sophomore completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards and also rushed for 61, but he did a much better job of protecting the football than Clifford. Clifford threw an early interception in addition to the scoop-and-score for a touchdown, the second consecutive game in which he had a fumble brought back for a score. He has thrown six interceptions and fumbled twice in 13-plus quarters of action this season.

Still, Franklin said the decision on who ultimately starts will be based on the week of practice, what has happened this season and how the two played last year. That might bode well for Clifford, who led the Nittany Lions to an 8-0 start and the Cotton Bowl.

"Obviously, Will came in and did some good things and put himself in this position and he's earned it, no different than Sean had earned the ability to be our starting quarterback last year and our starting quarterback to start the season," Franklin said.

Positively negative: Franklin said that, while Penn State has done a solid job keeping players and staff members safe and healthy during the pandemic, COVID-19 has presented plenty of challenges even in the shadow of that good news.

This season, 39 people associated with the program have registered a false-positive result during daily antigen testing. That means, 39 players have missed either practice time or a game, and he added that several players have registered false positives — tests that have come back positive then, later in the day, a second test is returned negative — multiple days in a row.

"It can be an emotional roller coaster throughout the week," Franklin said.

Compounding the issue, Franklin said positive results that are retaken later in the day have to be driven one hour and 45 minutes away to have the result either confirmed or refuted. Players are separated from teammates and put in isolation while the second test result is determined, which is leading to lost practice time for players who get false-positives as well as practices that are short on coaches who get similar results.

"We're at, I think, a higher rate (of false-positives) than anybody in the conference and trying to find out why," Franklin said.

"This is what 2020 has brought us, and we've got to find a way to navigate it the best we can. But it's not a level playing field across college football. It's not the same. Some places are better, some places are worse, some places have more resources, some places have more challenges. It really depends."

Cornerback? Penn State played last week without senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who went through warmups but was pulled from the starting lineup with no reason given and didn't see any action.

Franklin said Tuesday that Castro-Fields was "medically unavailable" to participate, though he was "close" to getting clearance.