STATE COLLEGE - Penn State was headed relentlessly toward the latest weekly discovery of a new rock-bottom Saturday when something - a minor, temporary reprieve from the Beaver Stadium gloom - happened.
Will Levis had started at quarterback for the Nittany Lions, replacing the mightily struggling Sean Clifford.
Iowa was eviscerating Penn State 31-7, but it wasn’t really on Levis. He seemed to play well enough to continue playing, at least.
Yet as the Lions took over with 4:09 left in the third quarter, Clifford was back out there. And on his first snap he hit tight end Brenton Strange for a 28-yard touchdown.
Iowa took over and reeled off three first downs on three plays, because Penn State’s defense has become a dumpster fire within the dumpster fire. But the Hawkeyes did stall, and missed a field goal, and Clifford was soon out there again.
Again he fired, this time a truly excellent deep ball to a truly excellent receiver, Jahan Dotson, for a 68-yard TD.
Two snaps in, Clifford was 2-for-2 for 96 yards and two touchdowns. His quarterback rating was 833.2, which might be the highest in recorded history.
After a 2-point conversion, Penn State trailed only 31-21 with more than enough time left and, …
Order, if that’s the right word, was soon restored. Clifford threw a bad interception. A bit later, scrambling desperately, he threw another one, this to a 300-pound defensive tackle, Daviyon Nixon, who embarked on a 77-yard rumble, including an NBA Euro-step move to evade Clifford, that was by far the Iowa bench’s favorite play of the night.
The final was 41-21. The last time Penn State was 0-5 was never.
“We had to learn how to handle success,’’ coach James Franklin said afterward. “Now we have to learn how to handle adversity. We have to say stay together - closer than we’ve ever been.’’
Again the engine of a football team, the offensive line, got battered, after Penn State at least ran the ball effectively last week at Nebraska. It averaged 1.8 yards per rush Saturday.
Again, turnovers were huge. Penn State had four, Iowa had one. The Lions are now minus-nine in turnover margin on the season. In addition to the Clifford picks, Levis had two of Penn State’s three fumbles.
“That was the story of the game, and that’s been the story of the season,’’ Franklin said.
As practically goes without saying at this point, there were game-management and/or play-calling questions.
On third-and-one near midfield late in the first half, down 17-7, Penn State handed to ball to true freshman Caziah Holmes (game numbers: six rushes, eight yards) against a team very difficult to run on, behind an offensive line the was getting whipped. Holmes lost a yard.
Franklin then went for the fourth-and-two with a pass, a fade route to Jahan Dotson that had no chance.
“I’m doing everything I can to inject some energy and momentum into the offense,’’ was Franklin’s explanation.
Yet he opted to punt, down 34-21, with 3:20 left in the game.
In addition to everything else, the ranks are now being depleted. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, one of Penn State’s best and most experienced players, will have season-ending surgery, Franklin announced after the game.
First-team running back Devyn Ford played only in the opening drive. CB Tariq Castro-Fields and backup QB Ta’Quan Roberson were among the slew of players unavailable Saturday.
If there’s a quarterback controversy now - and to say that is to give the word “controversy,’’ a thorough watering-down - it’s possible that Roberson, a dual-threat guy who hasn’t played yet, might have become part of it.
As it is, Levis and Clifford will both get their shots the rest of the way, and the guy who can merely hang on to the ball will surely win out.
It has come to that.