STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For Penn State, 2020 has been the year of the turnover, and its persistent problems in taking care of the football probably reached their lowest ebb on Saturday.
It didn’t matter who the quarterback was against Iowa. In his first start of the season, Will Levis lost two fumbles. In coming out of the bullpen for the first time, Sean Clifford threw a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned 71 yards by 305-pound lineman Daviyon Nixon for a touchdown.
The Hawkeyes ended up scoring 24 points off the four turnovers, and the Nittany Lions exited Beaver Stadium hurting again, this time from a 41-21 loss that dropped them to a historically bad 0-5 — the worst start in the 134-year history of their football program.
“The story of the game is you can’t turn the ball over, and that’s the story of the season — turnovers,” exasperated head coach James Franklin said afterward. “Four turnovers by us to one by our opponent. You can’t turn the ball over, and when you have a chance to get turnovers, you’ve got to get them.
“That’s the story of this season. We got into this situation together, and we’re going to get out of this situation together. We’ve got to get these things fixed.”
The Nittany Lions have turned the ball over 13 times this season — eight interceptions and five fumbles. Their turnover margin is at minus-9, one of the worst marks in the country. Opponents have scored 51 points off of Lions mistakes. A Clifford turnover (two fumbles, one pick) has been returned for a touchdown three straight weeks.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” wide receiver Jahan Dotson said. “When we turn the ball over we put our defense in a terrible position. We have to keep the defense off the field, keep the ball and finish drives.”
Levis got off to a good start, using his legs to lead Penn State to its first touchdown, a 6-yard run by freshman Keyvone Lee in the opening quarter and its first lead since overtime of the Indiana game. It went downhill for him from there.
A botched pitch to Lee in the second quarter set up a 41-yard TD drive for Iowa (3-2). The Lions turned the ball over on downs on their next two possessions, including an incomplete pass to Dotson from the Penn State 49 that sent the Hawkeyes off on a seven-play drive that resulted in one of two TD’s by Mekhi Sargent and a 24-7 halftime lead.
Levis was strip-sacked on Penn State’s first two drives in the third quarter, the first leading to another touchdown for the visitors. Franklin then inserted Clifford after his team’s only takeaway of the day — a fumble recovery by Lamont Wade at the Iowa 28 — and the redshirt junior threw a touchdown pass to tight end Brenton Strange on his first snap.
When the Lions regained possession, Clifford took his second snap and fired a 68-yard scoring strike to Dotson, making it 31-21 on the last play of the third quarter and giving diehard Penn State fans a glimmer of hope.
Ah, but no. Clifford threw a deflected pass that was intercepted at the Penn State 23 by end Chauncey Golston, which the Hawkeyes cashed in for a field goal, and Nixon showed deceptive speed on his pick-6 with just under 2 minutes to play.
If the result of the game wasn’t discouraging enough, Franklin informed reporters afterward that tight end Pat Freiermuth, who is considered one of the best at his position in the country, will undergo season-ending surgery for an injury he suffered against Ohio State in the season’s second game.
“Pat has been a big part of me growing as a player and growing as a person,” said Strange, a redshirt freshman making his first career start. “How he comes in every day and handles things has been a big example for me.”
The Nittany Lions lost Devyn Ford after the first series, leaving Lee and fellow freshman Caziah Holmes as the only available running backs. Ford, Lee and Holmes combined for 16 yards on 13 carries.
The two most disappointing teams in the nation, Penn State and Michigan, will meet next week at the Big House. Franklin said the most important task in the coming day is to “stick together as a family and as a team and stay positive.
“We’re being challenged right now,” he said. “We’ve had to learn how to handle success, and now we have to learn how to handle adversity. It’s even more challenging when they don’t have the support system around them that they typically would have. We have to stay together as a family closer than we’ve ever been and find a way through this.”