Penn State football lost its first game of the season Saturday afternoon to the undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers, 31-26.
Let’s look at three takeaways from the game.
1. Penn State’s College Football Playoff hopes are still alive
The Nittany Lions’ margin for error is gone after the loss to Minnesota, but they still control their own destiny when it comes to the College Football Playoff. They’ll have to win out to get there, but doing so will create a resume that’s tough to beat among one-loss teams. Penn State will have to beat the College Football Playoff selection committee’s top team in two weeks when the Nittany Lions take on Ohio State. A win in that game, and wins over Indiana and Rutgers, would put Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game, where they would likely get a rematch with the Golden Gophers. A win in that game would avenge the team’s only loss and make it difficult for the committee to keep the Nittany Lions out of the playoff.
2. Sean Clifford has to play better for Penn State to reach its ceiling
Penn State redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford was not good enough to lead the Nittany Lions to a victory and helped create a deficit that proved to be insurmountable. He was brutal in the first half, completing 9-of-21 passes for 132 yards and throwing two interceptions. He missed two would-be touchdowns in the half and hitting both would’ve made up the 11-point deficit. The first miss was a deep pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Justin Shorter down the middle of the field. Shorter beat Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr., but Clifford underthrew the pass and Shorter couldn’t adjust, allowing Winfield to make the interception.
The second was a pass to true sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth that Clifford threw way too short. Freiermuth had no chance of catching the pass. If Clifford had thrown the pass on the money, the true sophomore tight end had green grass in front of him for another potential score. Clifford stepped up his play in the second half, but wasn’t good enough to bring the Nittany Lions out of the hole that he helped create, and ultimately ended the game with his third interception of the day.
3. Penn State’s secondary is its weak link
The Penn State front seven is among the best in the country, but the secondary clearly is not. The Nittany Lions were shredded by Minnesota’s wide receivers all game long and allowed big plays in big situations. Junior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields struggled all game and was beaten several times by sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who finished the game with 7 receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt senior John Reid wasn’t much better for Penn State. He committed defensive pass interference on a crucial third down that allowed Minnesota to keep a drive alive in the fourth quarter and continue to drain the clock. Castro-Fields and Reid will have to play better when Penn State takes on the Buckeyes in two weeks.