Shortly after Minnesota’s fans rushed the field — screaming, dancing and celebrating a program-defining upset — Penn State’s quarterback walked to the media room staring at his shoes.
This was the first loss of his young career, a 31-26 defeat to the undefeated Golden Gophers. And it was his worst performance to date, a three-interception showing after tossing just three combined picks in his eight previous appearances.
So while the No. 17 Golden Gophers erupted in cheers, posing for photos and soaking in the program’s best start since World War II, Clifford grimaced. He spoke in hushed tones Saturday afternoon as if the wrong question might crack his voice.
“It’s one of those things where you can’t help but blame yourself, especially after my performance today,” Clifford said, looking down. “I think I need to play better. I say that every week, but this week it actually hurt us.”
Saturday’s loss put an end to the dream of a perfect Penn State season. And while the Nittany Lions still likely control their own destiny, and will still likely make the College Football Playoff if they win out, that didn’t serve as much of a consolation Saturday. “That’s the furthest thing from my mind,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said.
Instead, the sting of the loss was painted on Clifford’s and every Penn State player’s face. The normally smiling, charismatic KJ Hamler spoke quietly and in short sentences. Freiermuth’s face dropped as if he just heard a eulogy, and several players embraced in the hallway, near tears.
The locker room was simply described as “emotional.” And James Franklin acknowledged that several players approached him and told him, “Sorry.” They put the losses on themselves; they didn’t play up to their own expectations.
And that held especially true for Clifford, who told reporters several times this season he wanted to remain perfect.
“Just how hard he is on himself, he’s going to feel like this is his fault, but it’s not,” running back Journey Brown said. “It’s the whole team. A guy like that, he takes a lot of pride in what he does and for me to see how he’s taking it — I just tell him everything happens for a reason.”
Penn State didn’t simply lose Saturday because of Clifford. There was plenty of blame to go around. The secondary allowed Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan to complete 90 percent of his passes (18-of-20 passing), the worst mark of the century by a Penn State defense in a conference game. Wideout Justin Shorter also committed two drops, and fellow wideout Dan Chisena dropped a sure touchdown.
The list goes on. WR Daniel George was flagged for offensive pass interference in the final minute of the game. And, in the first half, the front-seven didn’t register a single sack, stuff, QB pressure or turnover.
But it was Clifford who sat front and center Saturday in the media room. As the face of this program, the quarterback who stood up in front of his team in April and swore there would be no drop-off, the loss weighed heavy on his shoulders. He didn’t try to pretend otherwise.
“It’s a tough loss obviously; a lot of emotions,” he said, still frowning after his 23-of-43 passing performance for 340 yards. “You just got to keep on fighting, and that’s what we did in this game. We came up short. Just got to keep fighting.”
Added Freiermuth: “There’s not another dude in the whole country, in the whole world, that I would want as my quarterback. That’s my brother through the good and bad. He did make plays to put us in position to win today.”
The most surprising part of Saturday’s game might’ve been that Penn State still had a chance to win at the end. The Nittany Lions were consistently outplayed but, with 6 minutes left in the game, Clifford guided the team on an 8-play, 63-yard touchdown drive. After a defensive stop, Clifford — who limped upfield due to cramps — needed just five plays to drive his team another 62 yards to the Minnesota 10.
He completed a pass to Brown to the 2-yard line but watched as George’s offensive pass interference took Penn State back to the 25. The first-year starter threw an interception two plays later to end the game.
“Just the courage for a guy to come up and say it’s his fault, we definitely love that because that’s what leaders do,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “At the same time ... it’s not your fault. It’s on everybody.”
Clifford seemed eager to end his time in the media room Saturday, not because he minded the questions. He was accountable. But because he said he wanted to watch the film right away and see what went wrong so he can make sure Saturday doesn’t happen again.
When asked what comes after that, Clifford acknowledged he wasn’t sure. He knows it falls to him to address this team, instill confidence and help it move on.
But, on Saturday afternoon, minutes removed from TCF Bank Stadium singing along to Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate!”, the pain was still fresh in Clifford’s mind. By Sunday practice, he said, this team will have moved on.
But until then?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t been part of a loss. ... So I’m going to take some thought with it.”