Penn State looked well on its way to a comfortable victory over Iowa in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions led the Hawkeyes 17-3, despite two interceptions, and held a 208-49 advantage in yards from scrimmage. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras was 1-for-9 including an interception, and Penn State looked a step ahead of Iowa at every turn.
That’s when disaster struck.
Midway through the second quarter, Nittany Lions’ quarterback Sean Clifford was pressured on a pass that sailed high over the hands of tight end Brenton Strange. That would be the last play of the game for the Penn State senior signal caller as he was injured on the hit by Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell.
From that point on, redshirt sophomore quarterback Ta’quan Roberson took over at quarterback. In two-and-a-half quarters of work, Roberson went 7 of 21 for 34 yards and two interceptions while frequently struggling to even get the ball snapped, leading to a plethora of false start penalties. Iowa outscored the Nittany Lions 20-3 the rest of the way and walked away as 23-20 victors, moving to No. 2 in the AP Top 25 after the No. 1 Alabama lost to Texas A&M.
Roberson’s struggles were painfully evident, but the issues fall far beyond him. Depth in the Penn State quarterback room has been an issue for a while now. This is particularly true after the transfer of last year’s backup, Will Levis, who has been up and down on the season but helped lead Kentucky to a 6-0 record.
The Nittany Lions have struggled mightily to recruit the quarterback position since Clifford signed in 2017 and former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead left to take the head coaching job at Mississippi State.
In 2018, Penn State landed a commitment from Chicago Bears’ starter and former Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields. Fields eventually decommitted and signed with his home-state Georgia Bulldogs before transferring to Ohio State where he would become a household name. Instead, the Nittany Lions signed Levis.
One year later, Penn State signed a pair of quarterbacks. The first was Roberson, who was rated as a four-star recruit by 247Sports but concerns over size, arm strength and accuracy meant the biggest competitor for the Nittany Lions was Boston College. The second, Michael Johnson Jr., was also rated as a four-star but considered more of an athlete than a true quarterback. He’s since transferred to Florida Atlantic University where he finds himself well down the depth chart.
The top targets in that cycle were Sam Howell, who has had a stellar career for the University of North Carolina, and Garett Shrader, who opted to follow Moorhead to Mississippi State before transferring to Syracuse after Moorhead was fired.
The trend continued and was exemplified in 2020 when the Nittany Lions signed three-star quarterback Micah Bowens out of Nevada. Bowens lasted just one year on campus before transferring to Oklahoma where he’s currently the fourth-string quarterback behind true freshman walk-on Ralph Rucker. Bowens was the only quarterback Penn State was really in for in the class.
For 2021 quarterback signee Christian Veilleux, the book is still unwritten. The Canadian true freshman is currently third on the depth chart behind Clifford and Roberson. He was a three-star prospect out of high school, having played for two years at The Bullis School in Maryland, home of former Ohio State star Dwayne Haskins. Veilleux was recruited lightly by Clemson, but the biggest competition for him came from Duke and early returns from Penn State practices have been mixed. Veilleux’s commitment came after five-star Pennsylvania native Kyle McCord opted to leave the state to head to division rival and powerhouse Ohio State.
The hope for many Penn State fans comes in two forms. First is the wild west world that is the NCAA transfer portal, which has seen big names such as Fields, Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow leave their initial schools for greener pastures. The second comes in the form of 2022 commit Drew Allar. Allar, an Ohio native, has raced up recruiting rankings in the last year and is currently rated as a four-star and one of the top 100 players in the nation. He committed to the Nittany Lions largely due to the presence of new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and is expected to be in the conversation for the starting job as a true freshman should Clifford not return next season.
Allar, who has since picked up an offer from Ohio State, plans to enroll in January.
So while Roberson’s struggles are ultimately his to own, the New Jersey native didn’t put himself in that situation. That, instead, is the product of years of struggles and coaching turnover for the Nittany Lions and is an issue that will continue to persist should the quarterback recruiting not turn around.
Clay Sauertieg can be reached at email@example.com