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Sean Clifford, Penn State Does Best To Rally Around Ta’Quan Roberson During Injury-Filled Afternoon

When Sean Clifford exited Saturday afternoon’s game at Kinnick Stadium, Penn State football held a 17-3 lead in the second quarter and was largely imposing its will on Iowa.

Once redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson was forced to check-in for the veteran Clifford, however, the Nittany Lions lost any sort of offensive momentum. Mike Yurcich’s unit crawled into halftime by not grabbing any first downs over the course of three possessions, along with an interception and four false start penalties.

Roberson was understandably rattled. The New Jersey native was getting his first significant playing time in one of the most notorious environments in all of college football, and communication was clearly an issue. James Franklin even noted postgame that the younger signal-caller just wasn’t as loud as Clifford, which led to penalty issues.

Penn State fans held their breath after that messy last few minutes of the first half, but once Clifford returned to the field in a t-shirt, it became clear that the keys to the offense would remain in Roberson’s hands.

Senior linebacker Ellis Brooks, who led the defense with 14 total tackles, was one of several players who embraced the third-year captain before returning to the field for the third quarter.

“I told him that I love him and that we have his back. We’re gonna keep on fighting,” Brooks said.

Other than the two ugly interceptions, Clifford had himself an afternoon at Kinnick before the injury. The Cincinnati native was efficient by completing 60% of his attempts and earning 146 yards through the air. He also rushed for 36 yards, including a four-yard score on a perfectly executed draw play.

The story was obviously different for Roberson. He threw for 36 yards and went just 7-of-20 through the air, along with an interception. The quarterback’s aforementioned communication issues were also apparent throughout the game, as Penn State finished the day with an absurd eight false start penalties. The offense truly never got into sync with Roberson running the show, as the Nittany Lions couldn’t even total 100 yards in the second half.

Aside from the fact that this was a nearly impossible situation for an inexperienced quarterback to be thrust into, Roberson was also handed brutal field position on several occasions.

“Ta’Quan getting his first real game experience backed up on the one-yard line or two-yard line multiple times did not make it, obviously an ideal situation for a guy getting his first significant time,” Franklin said postgame.

Roberson started four drives inside Penn State’s own 10-yard line, including a key fourth-quarter possession on the one. He and the offense could never truly flip the field, except for one occasion in which a tempo-based drive help set up a Jordan Stout field goal.

The quarterback used his legs in an effective way, as an efficient, 11-play drive helped eat some clock and get some much-needed rest for Penn State’s defense. However, that was truly the only consistent success for Roberson against an impressive Iowa defensive front.

While Roberson battled through adversity as night fell on Kinnick Stadium, Clifford remained a resource on the sidelines.

“Sean’s a great leader,” Roberson said. “Telling me what he’s seeing on the field, sometimes telling me what I didn’t see. Just giving me motivation.”

Roberson added that it was a fairly quick turnaround when he was told he’d be going into the game. He noted that Penn State’s defense was on the field, but it was already second down when Clifford went off to the locker room and he knew he’d have to check-in.

“In our program, it’s the next-man-up mentality,” Roberson said. “Coach Yurcich and Coach Franklin prepare everybody, all the backups, to be in a position like this.”

While Clifford was the most notable star to go down, the Nittany Lions saw several key players exit the game due to injury. Captain and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher went down early and never returned, while Jonathan Sutherland was also forced out due to an injury. Running backs John Lovett and Devyn Ford were also both knocked out of the game.

As much as the Nittany Lions preach that next-man-up mentality, it’s easy to understand how much those injuries hindered the team on either side of the ball. Despite that, key leaders for the Nittany Lions did all they could to rally around players stepping into unfamiliar roles, especially Roberson.

“Ta’Quan is a great quarterback. We’re looking forward to him and his progression,” Luketa said. “It’s tough [to be the next man up], but playing at an institution like Penn State — a power five conference — it’s what we do.”

With a bye week on the horizon and a homecoming game against Illinois after that, it’s unclear how soon Penn State’s injured players will return to the field, including Clifford. However, it’s hard to imagine the Nittany Lions won’t come back with a chip on their shoulder. It looked as if Penn State was set to pull away from the Hawkeyes early in that second quarter, but injuries truly derailed any efforts of that.

Either way, the Nittany Lions have no choice but to move on from Saturday’s frustrating defeat, no matter who’s behind center.

“It’s a tough loss. It sucks, honestly. It is what it is,” Luketa said. “We’re hungry. There’s still plenty of football left to be played. We were blessed to start the season 5-0. This one hurts, it hurts deep, but we’ll see them again.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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