IOWA CITY, Iowa — Leading up to Saturday’s game against Iowa, Penn State players and coaches repeated “play-action” when stressing what they expected to see on their trip to Iowa City.
Trailing by four points late in the fourth quarter, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras threw a 44-yard touchdown pass off the play-action to wide receiver Nico Ragaini in what amounted to be the go-ahead score.
No. 3 Iowa defeated No. 4 Penn State, 23-20, during a game in which the Nittany Lions lost starting quarterback Sean Clifford to injury during the second quarter.
“All losses are tough,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We have great leadership, and we have a great coaching staff. One of the things I’ve learned the longer I’ve been in this, you don’t get in that locker room and start making corrections. This is not the time for that. I told them how much I love them. We’ll get the stuff cleaned up tomorrow. We have a bye week to get some things fixed, and hopefully get some guys back.”
Clifford left the game late in the second quarter with what appeared to be an upper-body injury. He led the Nittany Lions on scoring drives on three of their first five possessions.
Reserve quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson replaced Clifford, but a 14-point cushion in the second quarter and a relentless Penn State defense still weren’t enough to hold off the Hawkeyes.
Penn State only gained 95 yards in the second half — 40 of those coming in the final quarter.
The Nittany Lions committed three consecutive false start penalties on Roberson’s first drive, forcing Penn State to punt on fourth-and-26 from its 9-yard line.
The punt was Penn State’s first of the game.
“Ta’Quan getting his first real game experience backed up on the 1-yard line or the 2-yard line multiple times did not make it an ideal situation for a guy getting his first significant time,” Franklin said.
Penn State was flagged for false starts seven more times, all with Roberson in a quarterback.
Roberson entered Saturday 4-of-7 passing for 51 yards with one touchdown. He completed seven of 20 pass attempts for 34 yards with two interceptions against the Hawkeyes.
On Roberson’s second drive, Iowa picked off the redshirt sophomore’s deep pass intended for wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
The Nittany Lions attempted to feature Roberson’s legs early in the third quarter, as he had runs of 9, 12, 10, 7 and 5 yards during an 11-play drive that kicker Jordan Stout capped with a 44-yard field goal to give the Nittany Lions a 10-point lead.
“I thought the one time we were able to go (with) some tempo stuff and make some plays with his legs — we went down and kicked the field goal — I thought that was significant in the game, but we weren’t able to do it as much as we needed to in the second half,” Franklin said.
The Penn State offense took a step back in the third quarter. The Nittany Lions only managed 52 yards, and failed to convert any of their three third-down attempts.
Clifford before the injury was 15-of-25 passing with 146 yards and two interceptions.
He ran for a 4-yard touchdown in the first quarter and distributed the football well during the second quarter to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Noah Cain. Clifford during the drive registered first-down passing plays of 17, 16 and 15 yards on the scoring drive that spanned 75 yards on nine plays.
The Nittany Lion defense remained stout through the first half, holding Iowa to just 49 yards in the first quarter and 139 through the first half. More importantly, they limited Iowa’s chances following Clifford’s first-quarter interceptions.
After Iowa’s defense intercepted Clifford on Penn State’s first play from scrimmage, the Hawkeyes received the ball at Penn State’s 8-yard line. Penn State’s defense held firm, as a sack by defensive tackle Arnold Ebiketie forced Iowa to settle for a field goal.
Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks paced all defenders with 14 tackles including eight solo stops. Safety Jaquan Brisker and Ebiketie ended with nine tackles apiece. Brisker also added an interception, his third of the season.
“It’s unfortunate we lost,” Ebiketie said. “It was a close game. We could have had that game. It’s unfortunate, but we have to get back to work. It’s just a bump in the road. We’ll get back to work and do what we do best.”
Penn State is idle next week and hosts Illinois on Oct. 23.