Nittany Lions Lose in Lincoln, Fall to 0-4
LINCOLN, Neb. — For the fourth straight game, the Penn State Nittany Lions lost. Saturday, Penn State fell to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 30-23 in Lincoln. It’s the first time the Nittany Lions have lost four in a row since 2015, and it’s their first 0-4 start since 2001.
Despite out-gaining the Cornhuskers by 203 yards and winning the time-of-possession battle by nearly 13 minutes, Penn State continued to make the same mistakes that cost them in the first three games of the season: a slow start on offense, a lack of pressure on defense, and, especially, turnovers.
“Turnovers continue to be a problem,” head coach James Franklin said. “It’s hard to get into a rhythm when you turn the ball over.”
The Nittany Lions sacked freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey just once and forced only a single interception: a 50-50 ball late in the game. Penn State, meanwhile, turned the ball over twice via traditional methods and twice more via downs in the fourth quarter. Both of those traditional turnovers resulted in Nebraska points on the board.
One came on Penn State’s first drive of the game, as quarterback Sean Clifford threw well behind his target, resulting in an interception by Nebraska’s Cam Taylor-Britt. The other came a quarter later, as a Clifford sack-fumble was returned for a Cornhuskers score.
That turn of events was enough for Franklin to make a change, as sophomore quarterback Will Levis went in on the next drive instead of Clifford. This swap is what got Penn State back in the game.
“[Levis] went in and gave us a spark,” Franklin said. “He did a good job managing the game overall, and he made some good throws.”
Levis wasn’t perfect in relief of Clifford, as he completed fewer than half of his passes and was held without a touchdown. But it cannot be denied that his substitution was essential in igniting Penn State’s comeback effort, as the Nittany Lions finished the game on a 20-6 run with Levis under center, which included outscoring Nebraska 17-3 in the second half.
“I’m completely confident in my abilities and I have been since I came here,” Levis said. “I’m willing to do what’s best for the team.”
Although the comeback effort was convincing, it came up just short, as the Cornhuskers stuffed the Nittany Lions on fourth down twice late in the fourth quarter.
“Give credit to the defense, I thought they did a good job defending our routes down there,” Levis said.” But at the goal line, it comes down to technique and accuracy. It’s going to be a big area of focus for us this week.”
Indeed, scoring struggles have been another issue that has plagued Penn State all season. Three of the Nittany Lions’ red-zone drives halted short of the pylon, resulting in three points each time instead of seven.
“There’s room for improvement, especially in the red zone,” Levis said. “It means nothing if you get all the way down there and don’t score.”
In terms of encouraging trends, the backfield finally came to life. After games of 44 and 94 yards on the ground, the Penn State rushing attack exploded for 245 yards and two scores. Sophomore Devyn Ford led the way with 66 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, but the freshman duo of Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee were arguably more impactful. Holmes gave the Nittany Lions offense a jolt in the second quarter with a 36-yard gain (Penn State’s longest single rushing play of the season so far), while Lee contributed a quarter later with an untouched 31-yard scamper for six points.
According to Franklin, much of that success came from changes in the trenches.
“We were more physical and consistent up front,” Franklin said. “We moved [senior tackle] Will Fries to guard and had [freshman] Caedan [Wallace] at tackle, and I think that helped us. And a bunch of those young guys… Caziah Holmes, Keyvone Lee, Devyn Ford… we were able to move the ball [on the ground] today.”
But the number one takeaway for everyone involved is that, despite some promising signs, Penn State lost yet again, meaning it’s another week of going back to the drawing board to figure out where it all went wrong.
As Penn State now turns its attention to Iowa, all that remains is the big question on everyone’s mind: Will Franklin return to Clifford next week? Or has Levis taken over the reins?
“We’re not going to name a starting quarterback right after a game before discussing it as a staff and evaluating the tape,” Franklin said. “Obviously that will be a discussion all week long.”
Much like how Nebraska had to decide between the established veteran quarterback (Adrian Martinez) and the inspiring rookie (Luke McCaffrey) coming into today’s game, Penn State will have a crucial decision to make at the signal-caller position before it gets ready to take on the Hawkeyes next Saturday.
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.