After leaving a game two weeks prior on the road against Iowa, there was plenty of attention given to the status of starting quarterback Sean Clifford as Penn State prepared for its next game against Illinois. After getting the start for the Nittany Lions and leading Penn State to a 10-0 lead in the first half, it appeared things were going to be OK for the Nittany Lions. But then the offense went stale and nine overtimes later, Clifford and Penn State’s offense couldn’t do a thing against the Illini in a monumental loss in the James Franklin era.
Naturally, after the game, Franklin had some explaining to do with regard to his quarterback. Was Clifford truly ready to play, or was he rushed back to avoid having to use a backup option like Taquan Roberson? According to Franklin, it was determined Clifford was Penn State’s best chance to win even if he was not quite at 100 percent.
“We had confidence that it was going to happen, but we weren’t sure,” Franklin said after the game when asked what the timeline was for deciding Clifford would be ready to play against Illinois. “He got better every single day. The feedback that we were getting from the trainers and the doctors and from Sean was that he’d be able to go today. Obviously, that’s a day-to-day thing.”
Clifford left the Iowa game two weeks ago with an apparent shoulder injury that saw him return to the sidelines out of uniform in the second half. Although he was spotted practicing with the offense this week, there was never an update from Franklin on whether or not he would play against the Illini.
Even with a banged up Clifford, few would have thought Illinois could hang with Penn State and leave with a win. Asked if Clifford was instructed not to run with the football, Franklin suggested that wasn’t the case.
“No, but obviously we had to be smart,” Franklin said on the subject. “He was limited today, that’s why we tried to mix the run and the pass in there to take some of that off him. Obviously, it’s a big part of his game that he didn’t have today.”
Clifford was taken down for a loss of 28 yards on five official rushing attempts, including four sacks credited to the Illinois defense. Clifford’s passing game wasn’t quite up to par with 19-of-34 passing for 165 yards, with one touchdown to KeAndre Lambert-Smith in the first quarter. But not having Clifford adding to the running game as he has been prone to do successfully (see the first half against Iowa), took a big page out of the book for Penn State.
There will be plenty of second-guessing how Franklin and his staff handled the bye week with the number of injuries they were working through. If Clifford was deemed to be the best chance for Penn State to beat a dreadful Illinois team, that could be construed as an indictment on the staff’s inability to fully prepare Roberson for starting a game with the benefit of a bye week for extra work with the offense. If all Penn State had to do in four quarters was score 11 points, then questions about how this team was prepared fall squarely on the shoulders of Franklin with the quarterback situation.
“We just have way too many guys that played significant roles in that game that did not practice or did not practice full speed and full-go all week long,” Franklin explained. “Practices are obviously really important and we had way too many guys miss, and Sean was one of those guys.”
“Now, obviously, we did not have our guys ready to play,” Franklin said. “I think there was a difference between playing Iowa on the road and having that type of loss with the type of injuries we had going into our bye week. But at the end of the day, all that matters is we get the job done, and we did not today.”
Now it will be back to the drawing board with a road trip to surging Ohio State coming up next weekend. The expectations for the season have been greatly diminished in the grand scheme of things, but any shot at even thinking about playing for a Big Ten championship can officially be put to rest if Franklin doesn’t have Penn State ready for a showdown with the Buckeyes.
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