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October 1, 2009
It had happened again - Clark and the Nittany Lions failing to deliver in a big game.
Desperate to spark a fourth-quarter rally Saturday, Clark spotted wide receiver Graham Zug across the middle. But Clark's pass was tipped and picked off by Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds. It was Clark's third interception of the game and it sealed a 21-10 loss to Iowa.
"That was a team loss, no one person or play lost it," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "We got licked."
It may have been a team loss, but it also arguably was Clark's worst performance in his second season as the starter. Clark, a fifth-year senior, completed just 12 of 32 passes for 198 yards and a touchdown, with those three interceptions.
"Every time we had an opportunity to put some points on the board, whether it be three points or a touchdown, something seemed to happen," Clark said. "When we would get something going, an interception or a mistake would happen. It just knocked all of our rhythm out of our offensive drives.
"They took advantage of our mistakes every time."
Paterno said the pass protection was a little shaky.
"A couple of times, that got him out of rhythm, and early in the game we were doing a little better job with the pass protection and he had a better chance," he said.
The loss means Penn State has little, if any, chance to win the national title. It all was right there for the Nittany Lions, which had 12-0 in its sights because of a combination of talent and a soft schedule.
"We've only played four games," Paterno said. "We'll see what happens."
Paterno isn't giving up hope or tempering expectations.
"What do you want me to tell them?" he asked. "I think people that have those kinds of expectations every year, obviously, have to be ready for some disappointments. Did Florida win the championship losing one game last year?"
The focus for Penn State now becomes the Big Ten title. For that to happen, it's vital that Clark regain the form that saw him lead Penn State to the league title and Rose Bowl last season. Clark was the second most efficient passer in the Big Ten (25th nationally), and he also ran 79 times for 282 yards and 10 touchdowns.
By design, Clark isn't running as much this season. He's fine with that because he knows Evan Royster is the top running back in the Big Ten.
Clark, a fifth-year senior, is a charismatic leader who has developed poise in the pocket. He also has size (6 feet 3/232 pounds) and a strong arm. But he lacks accuracy and often forces passes. He also has been prone to concussions, as he was knocked out of games in 2007 and '08.
Other issues Penn State must deal with to get its season back on track:
A soft offensive line. Against Iowa, the poor play of the line was a big problem. The Nittany Lions' front was remade after it lost three starters from 2008. The unit struggled to run block in the opening three games against Akron, Syracuse and Temple. That should have been a warning sign. Sure enough, facing a rugged Hawkeyes front, Penn State's line was dominated. And it didn't help that center Steve Wisniewski kept misfiring on shotgun snaps, throwing off the timing of many plays.
Suspect play-calling. With Iowa able to generate consistent pressure, Penn State should have run a few more screens. The Nittany Lions also would have benefited from throwing more downfield passes against Iowa's two-deep zone.
Special teams. It could be argued that the Nittany Lions have one of the worst special-teams units in the Big Ten. Against Iowa, Penn State had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. The Nittany Lions are No. 8 in the Big Ten in punt returns, last in kickoff returns, No. 10 in net punting and last in kickoff coverage.
Penn State should get back on track Saturday at Illinois, a program that is struggling and coming off a 30-0 loss at Ohio State. But Paterno knows there is no more wiggle room.
"As I mentioned in 1982, when we won the national championship, we had to come off a tough loss against Alabama where we had a blocked kick for touchdown," Paterno said. "That would be nice if it's a replica or forerunner of what might happen this year, but that's ridiculous. What happened then, happened then. What's going to happen from here on in, we've got to make happen.
"Hopefully the fans will not - I don't expect them to lower their expectations. ? But I can't address it when their expectations aren't met because we've got hundreds of thousands of fans and each one's got a different view of what's going on."
Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.