Penn State plays better but still comes up wanting against Ohio State

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws a pass against Ohio State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State won 33-24. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

This was not the same Penn State team that Ohio State watched one week prior.

That much was clear less than 10 minutes into Saturday's showdown at Ohio Stadium, when the No. 20 Nittany Lions marched 89 yards on 13 plays to take an early lead on the No. 5 Buckeyes.

It just still wouldn't be enough.

Penn State held Ohio State to 161 rushing yards after being gashed for 357 by Illinois last week, picked up 394 yards after being held to less than 300 in consecutive games and otherwise kept the scarlet-clad crowd nervous until the final moments.

Eventually, however, Ohio State prevailed, 33-24.

What changed for the Nittany Lions? Coach James Franklin had a couple of thoughts, but he wasn't willing to share them just yet.

"All I can speak is I thought we played well tonight," Franklin said. "More of that stuff I'll get into later, probably on Tuesday. I thought we battled tonight."

Then, as he was asked a different question, Franklin apologized and briefly added to his answer.

"One of the biggest differences was Sean's health tonight," he said. "That made a big difference."

That Sean was Sean Clifford, Penn State's fifth-year senior quarterback from Cincinnati. He threw for 361 yards, his season-high total against a Football Bowl Subdivision team, while completing a career-high 35 passes. He was also sacked four times, was picked off once and fumbled on a play that ended with 6-foot-2, 305-pound Ohio State defensive lineman — and Cincinnati-area product — Jerron Cage rumbling 57 yards for a touchdown. Franklin bristled at the notion that Clifford displayed "happy feet" in the pocket or failed to step into his throws.

Although he dealt with a stinger in his left shoulder after a third-quarter sack, physically, Clifford said he was 100% healthy against the Buckeyes - which made the defeat all the more frustrating.

Asked if a road loss to the No. 5 team in the country after a nine-overtime home loss to a 2-5 Illinois team constituted a moral victory, Clifford said simply, "We lost the game."

Senior running back John Lovett, who rushed for 20 yards on 13 carries, said Clifford did not miss any time during the week of practice and that his teammates had no doubt he'd be playing against the Buckeyes.

Multiple Nittany Lions said the difference from last week to this was simply a matter of execution.

"I'm glad we played hard," Franklin said. "There's going to be a bunch of positive things off that tape to learn from, but there's critical mistakes we've got to eliminate if we want to win consistently. I'm glad we gave ourselves a chance to win, but we didn't get it done."

Franklin spoke from just outside the visitors' locker room in the southwest corner of the stadium. Not far behind him, the last few Ohio State fans who had charged the field in celebration were still trickling up the ramp and out of the stadium. Overhead, a drop of liquid just missed landing on his head, the contents of the liquids unknown.

It felt like a step forward, but it was still a third straight loss for a Penn State team that had been ranked No. 4 in the nation when it went to No. 3 Iowa on October 9.

"I think we played hard all year long," Franklin said. "I know last week (against Illinois) we did not play the way we're capable of playing, but I thought we played hard all year long. We didn't play good enough to win tonight, but we're close. We'll find a way to get a win next week."

Penn State's next game is 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Maryland (5-3).