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The Deep Ball Is Back For Penn State Football

Penn State football is off to a 2-0 start in no small part thanks to an element of the offense that went missing last season: the deep ball.

Starting quarterback Sean Clifford has come out slinging in his first two starts as a Nittany Lion. In approximately six quarters of work, the redshirt sophomore went 30-for-45 and racked up 559 passing yards and six touchdowns against Idaho and Buffalo. For those of you counting at home, that’s 18.6 yards per completion and a Big Ten-leading 12.4 yards per passing attempt.

As those statistics indicate, Clifford has utilized the deep ball quite a bit during his first two collegiate starts. Both of his touchdown balls to Jahan Dotson were from at least 28 yards out and traveled at least 25 yards in the air en route to the end zone. His first touchdown of the season was a 36-yard bomb to KJ Hamler.

Clifford is no stranger to the deep ball, and his ability to find receivers in space downfield was on full display during his cameo appearances against Pitt, Kent State, and Illinois last season. His first career touchdown pass was a rainbow ball to Brandon Polk at Heinz Field, and Daniel George was wide open when Clifford put a pass that traveled approximately 35 yards through the air before the wideout ran it to the end zone against Kent State. That’s not to mention his 44-yard strike to Mac Hippenhammer late against the Illini that came a yard short of six points.

Penn State’s willingness to go deep early this season is a sign of much-needed change in terms of its passing game. Last season, Trace McSorley passed for more than 280 yards in a game just once (286 against Ohio State). Clifford hasn’t reached that mark yet, but he threw for 280 and 279 yards against Idaho and Buffalo, respectively.

Two games is an admittedly small sample size, but Clifford’s average of 12.4 yards per passing attempt is more than twice as high as McSorley’s was through two starts last year (5.8). The current Baltimore Raven totaled 374 yards through the air against App State and Pitt — nearly 200 fewer than Clifford has through two weeks as the starter. McSorley did have to deal with miserable, rainy conditions in week 2 of the 2018 season, but those statistics are still noteworthy.

Ricky Rahne didn’t completely abandon the deep ball in his first year as offensive coordinator — think DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk’s 40- and 41-yard scores against Kent State. That said, the offense definitely didn’t seem as confident in terms of taking shots downfield — particularly after consecutive home losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.

That game against the Spartans is a perfect example of how much Penn State got away from the deep ball last year. McSorley’s longest pass of the day was a 25-yarder. Nine of his 16 completions went for fewer than six yards in a dismal, boring 21-17 defeat at Beaver Stadium.

The Nittany Lions were just as conservative in winning efforts against Wisconsin and Rutgers. McSorley passed for 160 and 183 yards, respectively, in those match-ups. He completed a combined three passes of 25 or more yards in those games, and Jahan Dotson was on the receiving end of two of them. In contrast, Clifford completed four passes of 25-plus yards against both Idaho and Buffalo for a total of eight on the season.

Again, we’re only two games into the 2019 season, but Rahne’s apparent confidence in Clifford when it comes to launching the ball downfield can only bode well for the Nittany Lions. The 2016 Penn State offense was still one of the most exciting teams I’ve ever watched, and part of that was because of how many times McSorley launched the ball to guys like Mike Gesicki, Chris Godwin, and DaeSean Hamilton.

Clifford has capable weapons to work with — including Hamler, Dotson and the 6’4″ Justin Shorter, who’s been a bit underutilized this season with just four catches. Regardless, the deep ball is well and truly back in Happy Valley.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

Mikey is a senior majoring in journalism and Onward State's Sports Editor. He grew up in Bedminster, NJ and is way too obnoxious about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is hard. If you're dying to see more hockey/golf content on your timeline, you can follow Mikey on Twitter @mikey_mandarino. Send all hate mail, death threats, and your vote for the best chicken parm in State College to [email protected]

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