Blue White Illustrated

November 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 1 5 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M T he contrast could not have been more stark. Leading Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, 14-3, Penn State had quickly established the upper hand on offense. Against a Hawkeyes defense that was receiving national acclaim, the Nittany Lions had exposed cracks. They put to- gether a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on their second possession; a four- play, 39-yard touchdown drive after an interception; and a 14-play, 66-yard drive that produced a field goal to open the second quarter. But when fifth-year senior quar- terback Sean Clifford was injured, everything changed. Pursued by Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell on third-and- seven at the Hawkeyes' 15-yard line, Clifford overshot redshirt junior tight end Brenton Strange and was driven to the turf. Senior kicker Jordan Stout entered the game moments later to send home a 32-yard field goal, but Clifford was lost for the rest of the game. Although Penn State didn't regain possession until Iowa had scored a touchdown and five min- utes of game action had passed, what took place from that point on should of- fer a lesson for the Lions as the coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, figures out a way forward. "In our program, it's a next-man-up mentality," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson, Clif- ford's backup. "Coach Yurcich and Coach [James] Franklin prepare every- body, all the backups, to be in a position like this." It was an earnest sentiment, but the reality of the Nittany Lions' performance offered a distinctly different narrative. With Clifford sidelined, the wheels came off entirely. And, more important, Roberson was not the only Nittany Lion who was unprepared for that moment. On the 46 plays it ran after Clifford exited, Penn State's offense displayed a level of dysfunction beyond what was in- flicted by Iowa's defense or the roar of a partisan crowd. Starting with Roberson's first series, in which Penn State drew three consecutive false start penalties and lost 16 yards, the offense found itself locked in a self-perpetuating spiral of bad field position. Excluding a three-play series on which it was trying simply to get to the locker room at the end of the first half, Penn State had 10 meaningful possessions the rest of the game with Roberson at the helm. Eight of those drives lasted three or fewer plays. All but two took less than 1 minute, 33 seconds off the game clock. And four of the possessions began with the ball inside Penn State's 10-yard line. So while the Nittany Lion defense de- served major kudos for its performance, the rallying of support for Roberson rang hollow. "Ta'Quan, I honestly feel like he didn't do terrible for his first game," redshirt junior left tackle Rasheed Walker said. "He was just put in really funky situa- tions. It's already hard enough to play here with these crazy fans. "But I think Ta'Quan is ready. I feel like he just came in and tried his best." In the days that followed Penn State's 23-20 loss in Iowa City, fans clamored for news regarding Clifford's status. But because Franklin's policy is to not com- ment on injuries unless they are season- ending, the program didn't provide any firm answers. It shouldn't have to. The future offers a simple proposition for this group, with or without Clifford. The approach that allowed the Nittany Lions to win nine of 10 games heading into their matchup against Illinois on Oct. 23 is still the right one, regardless of who lines up at quarterback in the com- ing weeks. Having worked to get to this point as a program, Penn State is not likely to trash it all in a fit of resignation. For Roberson, there's an opportunity to seize. For Yurcich, this is where the pres- tige and ingenuity attached to his name all have an opportunity to shine further. For the teammates devastated by the setback of losing one of their leaders, the chance to lift another teammate has arrived. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig have parts to play, too — by instilling a more- aggressive, offensive-minded outlook in their units. Penn State's defense might have to win games not only by keeping opponents off the scoreboard, but by creating easy opportunities and points on the offense's behalf. Likewise, the special teams units might have to live up to Lorig's mantra to "change the game" with big returns and blocks. Although the circumstances were dif- ferent, Penn State's performance in 2020 could serve as a blueprint for this year's team to follow. The Lions showed resil- ience last season in bouncing back from an 0-5 start to win their final four games. They are once again being asked to bounce back from something. It's a path they are capable of taking, but only once that opportunity has been embraced. ■ Redshirt sophomore quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson came on in relief against Iowa and finished the game with seven completions in 21 attempts for 34 yards, with two interceptions. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL O P I N I O N NATE BAUER HOT READ With Season At Crossroads, Lions Must Choose Their Path

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