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COLLINS: Will Levis' role successful for Penn State, but it leads to questions

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Will Levis (7) rushes against Rutgers during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Piscataway, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Two weeks ago, James Franklin put a quarterback controversy to rest in a most unconventional way. He insisted, simply, Penn State needed both Sean Clifford and Will Levis to play.

In two games since Franklin made that statement during a press conference Nov. 24, he was true to his word. Clifford started both, but Levis took significant snaps. Penn State rallied from an 0-5 start to win each of those games in convincing fashion, on the road, at Michigan and Rutgers.

Even as the Nittany Lions found a bit of a rebirth offensively, and though they haven't trailed for a second of the last two games, the use of the quarterbacks becomes a bit of a front-burner issue again after a 23-7 romp past the Scarlet Knights on Saturday.

Of the 79 offensive plays Penn State ran against Rutgers, Clifford was under center on 62, throwing 22 passes.

Levis took the snap as quarterback 17 times, and ran the ball every time. No handoffs to running backs Keyvone Lee or Devyn Ford. No attempts to throw.

"It has primarily been a short-yardage offense that we've been using to run the ball, whether it's four-minute, whether it's short yardage, third-and-1, fourth-and-1," Franklin said after the game of the package of plays Levis ran. "That's obviously been the plan from the beginning. But we would like to mix some things in there, no doubt."

Levis not being allowed to run offense: Some things, of course, may include allowing Levis to run the actual offense.

In their two wins, the Nittany Lions' offense wasn't balanced; 67.7 percent of their plays against Michigan and Rutgers were runs.

Statistically though, the play call becomes much more obvious when Levis is on the field. In 23 combined plays in both games, he has run the ball 23 times, albeit for 90 yards and a touchdown.

"It just throws a little twist in there," Ford said of using Levis in the two-quarterback system. "I compare them to Drew Brees and Taysom Hill. They both can run. They both can throw the ball. ... That just makes our offense that much better. We have two quarterbacks who can come in the game and change the game."

Franklin did concede that weather concerns — heavy wind gusts made putting the ball in the air a challenge — dictated the run-heavy plays with Levis on the field. But it also should be mentioned the Nittany Lions threw just 37.8 percent of the time with Clifford on the field during their two-game win streak, and Clifford did throw an interception in the third quarter on another pass he threw to a crossing receiver. High passes over the middle are a bugaboo this season for Clifford.

Two things to consider: So, it comes down to two things Franklin and the staff know they have to consider moving forward: Does the run-heavy, more vanilla offense of the last two weeks give Penn State a better shot to win on a consistent basis? And, does using Levis as a battering ram — and making it very clear they will do so — contribute at all to his development as an all-around signal caller?

"I think that just like any player, Will and I both have our strengths," Clifford said. "Of course we can throw the ball out of the package; Will has a great arm and we have that capability. But there's certain looks that we get when we get in that package, and certain looks when we come out of it. It's just game planning."