COLLINS: Penn State's quarterback situation in flux after Clifford's benching
Last week, Penn State coach James Franklin said he didn't want his starting quarterback looking over his shoulder, wondering if his job is safe.
Just about 20 minutes into Saturday's loss to Nebraska, though, all ideals and theories went out the window when Cornhuskers safety Deontai Williams poked the ball out of Sean Clifford's hands, picked it up, and sprinted 26 yards into the end zone for a three-touchdown lead.
Now, with his Nittany Lions halfway through a season that started with so much promise and still looking for its first win, Clifford's unchallenged reign at the top of the depth chart appears over. And for Franklin, that means a big decision ahead when it comes to who is going to lead the Nittany Lions offense for the foreseeable future.
Backup quarterback Will Levis nearly rallied the Penn State offense, throwing for 219 yards and rushing for 61 more in relief of the slumping Clifford in a 30-23 loss that dropped the Nittany Lions to just their second 0-4 start in history. But Franklin insisted that the starter for Saturday's game against Iowa at Beaver Stadium would only be determined after further discussion and evaluation between the coaches this week.
Change was necessary on Saturday: That said, one thing became quite obvious against the previously winless Cornhuskers.
"Where we were at in that game, again with the turnovers and with what's gone on this season so far, we had to make that change," Penn State's head coach conceded.
Clifford turned the ball over twice in his first three drives Saturday. On the opening drive, he fired an off-target throw to a wide-open Jahan Dotson. Dotson ran an out route, and Clifford threw the pass much too far to the inside of the field, where the beaten cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt picked it off and returned it 55 yards to the Penn State 15. The Williams scoop-and-score ended Penn State's third drive, Clifford's day and, perhaps, his run as the starter.
Clifford turned the ball over on four of the last six drives he led, dating back to the fourth quarter of a Nov. 7 loss against Maryland. In consecutive weeks, one of his fumbles was returned for a touchdown.
"The ball is the program," Clifford was fond of saying, and once he couldn't protect it, change was afoot for the program.
Levis hardly perfect: Levis hardly played perfect in relief. He completed less than half of his pass attempts and got Penn State into the end zone on just one of the five trips he led inside the Nebraska red zone, critical missed opportunities in a game in which the Lions fell a touchdown short. However, Franklin noted that Levis protected the football — Penn State didn't turn the ball over with him in command of the offense — and provided "a spark" for a running game that seemed to adopt his physical style on the way to 245 rushing yards.
"It just comes down to going in and executing, and if my style of play brings energy to the guys, then great," Levis said. "But I'm just going to focus on myself and focus on the offense and try to get us going and executing as well as possible."
Levis brings different dynamic: The starter against Iowa likely will be determined by which quarterback provides the most spark to the offense moving forward, but Levis' physical nature and intensity also may bring a somewhat unexpected benefit.
After his insertion into the game with 11 minutes, 29 seconds left in the second quarter, Penn State's defense held Nebraska to just six points and 168 total yards over the final eight drives. The Cornhuskers offense had 150 yards and two touchdowns against Penn State's defense while Clifford was in the game.
"He just brought a great dynamic to (the game)," defensive end Jayson Oweh said. "I love Will. I love what he brings to the game. He's a tough runner. He's smart. He believes in himself. He gave us a spark when we needed it, because we knew that he was going to give it all up on the offensive side, so we had to give it all out (on defense).
"So I was really happy with what Will did. I just hope that he keeps going up."