Will Levis Showed Why His Ceiling is So High, But Also Why He's Still the Backup

By Nick Polak on November 27, 2019 at 1:00 pm
Nov 23, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Will Levis (7) tackled by Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Malik Harrison (39) during the third quarter at Ohio Stadium.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
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It's hard to imagine a much tougher situation to be put into for your first meaningful collegiate playing time.

Down 21-0.

On the road in a top-10 matchup.

Your previous game experience includes 33 total passes thrown (14 against Idaho in week one) and 16 rushes for 71 yards.

Oh, and you're playing against the best team and the best defense in the country.

Easy, right?

To say that Will Levis was put in a tough situation would be an understatement. On the broadcast, Joel Klatt and Gus Johnson likened it to being a pinch hitter in baseball, but in reality, it was like being a lefty pinch hitter who hasn't swung a bat in three weeks coming into the game to face peak-Randy Johnson.

Back in the fall, Levis lost the quarterback battle to Sean Clifford. Most of us assumed that it wasn't actually much of a "battle" per se, and more of a formality. But when put into this impossible situation against the Buckeyes, Levis showed fans why that decision may have been slightly tougher than it seemed from the outside.

On his second play after a run for no gain, Levis fired this ball into Dotson for a solid gain that set up a first down a play later. It was a simple throw and catch, but it showed off right away one of the things that makes Levis such an intriguing prospect – his arm.

With just a simple flick of his wrist, he burned that pass through the air to Dotson. Even if Shaun Wade (#24) had seen the pass coming more quickly, I don't think he would have been able to break it up in time thanks to the velocity alone.

On the very next play, we saw what we've come to expect from the big quarterback – hard, physical running. He's very difficult to stop for a loss thanks to his size (6'3, 230 lbs) but his strength is what makes it nearly impossible.

It is a bit surprising the running game worked as well as it did against the Buckeye front though. Maybe it was the offensive line feeling the need to step up for their backup quarterback, or maybe it was the threat of Journey Brown's legs (he was great in this game), but Levis was able to find holes through the Ohio State defense far more easily than I thought he would. I'm of the mind that the Buckeyes beat Michigan by 20, but I wonder if the Wolverine coaching staff was able to take anything away from this portion of the game.

The next drive (after the Micah Parsons forced fumble) started with this bullet pass from Levis to Freiermuth. I don't know if this ball was purposely thrown a bit behind Freiermuth to avoid Jordan Fuller (#4), but the placement allowed this to be a completion, even if the tight end did get whacked on it.

This play also shows Levis's fearlessness to throw into tight windows and tight coverage. He showed a good bit of trust in his tight end here to make this play, and he was rewarded.

And then he got a chance to use his legs to find the end zone.

Two drives in, Levis had really only done positive things. Sure, he started with the ball inside Buckeye territory both times, but he made some nice throws and had multiple great runs. This was the ultimate confidence booster for Levis and the team in general.

I think this may have been Levis's best throw of the day, but unfortunately, it will just go down as a drop instead of a potential game-tying touchdown.

Yes, the pass has a little bit of heat on it, but he was also fitting it between Baron Browning (#5) and Malik Harrison (#39) who happen to be two of the fastest linebackers in the country. It's a pass that would have been a tough play for Brown, who is not the best pass-catching back the Lions have, but it was a chance for a huge moment that could have tied the game at 21. All in all, it was a great throw from Levis that could have been thrown maybe just two or three miles per hour softer.

The other two throws that stood out to me came on the next few drives. The first was this one to Justin Shorter, which absolutely required all the zip Levis could put on the ball, and he did just that.

Cameron Brown (#26) was closing fast, and Levis just made sure that his pass beat him to the spot. In a perfect world, Shorter runs this route past the sticks and comes back for the ball instead of waiting for it, but I won't get too caught up on two redshirt freshmen failing to execute a play to perfection.

This one was just a feat of pure strength. Chase Young (#2) makes a poor decision here on 3rd down by going for the football instead of just going for the sack, but Levis is able to get enough on the pass while falling down to hit the always dangerous KJ Hamler in stride, who does the rest on his own. That's an incredibly tough pass to make while being hit.

Of course, the game wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for Levis. While all of those plays above showed off his incredibly high ceiling, he also showed why he didn't win that starting job back in the fall and why he still has a lot to improve on before he's ready to take over the reins for a program.

We already broke down this interception as our Key Play of the Week, but it highlights a great example of Levis still needing time to develop. On this RPO, he obviously should have kept it and run with it, he even said as much during his postgame interview. But for a young quarterback who knows his options are 1. run or 2. throw to Freiermuth, you can understand why he tried to fit this pass in.

This was the one that really stung. The interception, while a rough play overall, isn't too hard to justify. This one though is just a miss from Levis on what could have been a first down conversion to Hamler and a massive play.

Unfortunately, Levis just throws the ball behind him. If he lays it out in front, this is an easy conversion with a chance to be a touchdown if Hamler can shake the oncoming safety. Shaun Wade (#24) was badly beaten by Hamler's speed and only had a chance to break up the pass because of where it was thrown. Even if Wade hadn't been there, this would have required a one-handed, reach-back catch from Hamler. This was a huge missed opportunity for Levis and the offense.

There was another poor throw on the last-ditch 4th-down attempt to Jahan Dotson that should have been a completion, but the game was already more or less decided by that point.

Watching this game back, on the whole, what Levis did was pretty amazing. He has a lot of room to grow before he's ready to lead an offense for a full 60 minutes against a team like Ohio State, but then again, so do most quarterbacks. Should Sean Clifford be unable to play against Rutgers on Senior Day, or should he only be able to play for a few series, it will be extremely interesting to watch what Levis can do with close to a full game against the Scarlet Knights.

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