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For Penn State Football, Where There’s a Will Levis, There’s Almost a Way

by on November 23, 2019 6:45 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Will Levis and Penn State, it was a heckuva 24 minutes. Penn State’s best of the day here, by far.

The stretch began at was 2:07 p.m., on what was shaping up to a heavy scarlet and very gray Saturday afternoon in The Horseshoe.

Good luck, a 21-0 lead and the talent of a second-ranked team were all on Ohio State’s side. In a big way.

Save for Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields’ goal line fumble in the first half that staved off one Ohio State score, all the bad luck was Penn State’s.

And for the Nittany Lions, it looked like their luck it was about to go from bad to worse.

That’s when the clock struck seven past two, as Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was tackled hard after throwing a last-second lob to tight end Nick Bowers.

That pass was completed, but Clifford stayed down, with an injury to his right leg. After a few minutes on the artificial turf of Ohio Stadium, Clifford found his feet and hobbled to the sidelines. He never returned.

But, where there’s a Will, there’s a way. Almost, anyway.

In came Levis — No. 7, the Penn State redshirt freshman quarterback who is a studly and sturdy 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds.

Levis had appeared in four of the Nittany Lions first five games, but had played in a game just once in the past 50 days — last week in Beaver Stadium against Indiana, when he carried the ball three times for 5 yards in Lion duty, and didn’t attempt a pass.

He was playing now.


“We have that mentality in the quarterback room,” Levis said, “that regardless if you’re first string or fifth string, you have to be ready to start.”

Levis entered the game when it was Penn State’s ball on a first-and-10 at the Ohio State 43. The Nittany Lions were driving for the first time, really, all game. Still, Levis wasn’t taking over an offense that had sustained momentum. All five of their previous possessions against the Buckeyes had ended in punts, with three three-and-outs the last four times they got their hands on the ball. Clifford had attempted 17 passes, completing 10 for just 71 yards.

Penn State’s offense looked DOA, with zero first-half points for the first time in 2019, against a Buckeye defense that was ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense and scoring defense.

“My first instinct was to go the offensive line and the receivers and show that I had confidence in them and that they had the same thing in me,” Levis said. “I told them I was going to go out there and we were going to push the ball right down the field and score, and we were going to get the ball back and score again. That’s the mentality you have to have, regardless of the situation, to the score.”

Twenty-four minutes later, by 2:31 p.m., Levis was right. And more.


Thanks to a pair of Ohio State fumbles, Levis was able to lead the Nittany Lions to scoring drives on three consecutive possessions:

One: He completed the drive that Clifford started, with Journey Brown rushing the final 18 yards for a TD that pulled Penn State to within 21-7. Levis threw a 6-yard pass to wide receiver Jahan Dotson and ran for 10 on the drive.

Two: It took Penn State only two plays to make it 21-14, after Levis completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Pat Freiermith and then scored on a 1-yard run.

Three: Levis wasn’t done. On Penn State’s next possession, he set up the Nittany Lions’ third consecutive score, a 42-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar, to pull Penn State to within 21-17.

“It was great for him to come and immediately give us that boost — especially given the situation that he was out in,” Penn State O-lineman Mike Miranda said after the game. “That’s another reason why all of us are extremely proud of what he was able to do. It’s obviously a tough position when you come into a game like this. He hadn’t played too many significant snaps. Will did a great job. Handled himself great.”

Eventually, though, Levis’ luck ran out and his inexperience took over.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with Ohio State ahead 28-17, Levis had Penn State on the move again, driving the Lions from their own 25-yard line to the Buckeyes’ 27. There, on a first-and-10, Ohio State held serve.

On a failed RPO, Levis forced a short pass over the middle to Freiermuth and it was picked off by the Buckeyes’ Pete Werner. The Penn State surge was stopped and Ohio State held on to up its record to 11-0, clinch the Big Ten East division and earn their third consecutive win against Penn State.

In just a quarter-and-a-half, Levis had 19 carries for 34 yards — including five sacks — for Penn State. It was the third-most carries by a Penn State player in 2019 (supplanted only by Brown’s 21-carry, 100-yard performance vs. Indiana and Noah Cain’s 22 carries for 102 yards at Iowa).


“I thought early on Will came on and did some good things,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He gave us a spark and made some plays with his legs. He’s a big, physical runner. He was able to push the pile and break some tackles and finish some runs. He made some early throws and things like that.”

Clifford had been hobbled by a number of ailments in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game, which went into Franklin’s decision to not put him back in after Levis took over.

“Sean could have come back in, but he would not have come back 100%,” Franklin said. “And Will was playing well, so we decided to stay with him. It would have been one of those deals where we put Sean back in, but you know we would have been lacking mobility.”

Levis said that Clifford was a huge help as the game went on.

“After every drive I was coming off and Sean was telling me what he was seeing, then I would tell him what I was seeing and making certain decisions,” Levis said. “He was a great person to have on the sidelines to go through the experience with me.

Levis’ performance inspired his teammates.

“Will’s a great quarterback and he prepares to be a starter every week,” Freiermuth said. “He did a great job coming in and handling this environment and handling this type of game.”

As for Levis, he said he wasn’t happy with his performance. But it was one that he’ll remember, 17 consecutive points and all.

“It was really the first time I got playing time like that and on this kind of stage,” he said. “You can’t think of it as a special moment. It’s just like any other game. But looking back at it, it was really cool.”

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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