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Sean Clifford’s Confident, Methodical Approach Exactly What Penn State Needed Against Ball State

Now two games into the 2021 season, it seems like the 2020 version of Sean Clifford might have been an outlier.

Penn State football’s starting quarterback looked confident, calm, and in charge against Ball State Saturday afternoon. He threw for 230 yards at a 21-for-29 clip with a touchdown and, most importantly, no interceptions — good for a 150.4 quarterback rating.

While the Nittany Lions weren’t able to take the top off Ball State’s defense throughout the game, Clifford’s efficient performance was key to stabilizing the offense. Head coach James Franklin said after the game he was impressed with the senior’s play.

“I thought [Clifford] was very confident, I thought he was very efficient, I thought he was very poised early on,” Franklin said Saturday night. “When Sean had an opportunity to make some plays and extend some plays, he did that as well. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the type of athlete he is.”

While Clifford’s performance wasn’t stat-stuffing — his longest pass was only 25 yards — or super flashy, it was defining and indicative, which is exactly what Penn State needed. The Nittany Lions came out and established a calm, spread-out brand of offensive football.

Against Wisconsin, it felt like Penn State was just trying to stay afloat. Heading into halftime in Madison with no score and only a handful of yards gained, the Nittany Lions were undoubtedly relying on their defense.

Against Ball State, Penn State’s offense was in the driver’s seat. It quickly jumped out to a 14-point lead by running the ball hard, completing simple passes, and executing when it was time to execute. When watching tape on the Cardinals, Clifford knew this methodical approach may be necessary.

“That’s kind of how they play. They give you a lot of access, a lot of off-coverage, their safeties don’t really bite,” Clifford said after the game. “I kind of had a feeling this was going to be a big first read, second read, checkdown..being smart with the ball. I think we did a good job of that today.”

While Penn State did look for mostly shorter passing plays early, the Nittany Lions were able to take advantage of deep coverage holes in the first few drives. Most notably, Clifford put a ball in a basket to Keyvone Lee down the sideline to pick up 24 yards on the second drive.

A guy who might not be a huge fan of these shorter plays is Jahan Dotson, who is usually known as Penn State’s deep threat. Dotson — who led the Nittany Lions’ receivers with 65 yards — didn’t break free for a big score over the top, but he was able to take a designed screen to the house.

This methodical, quick-hitting flavor of offense helped Penn State set the tone early and gave Clifford and the rest of the offensive unit confidence in its scheme.

“Just taking what the defense gives us is always a point of emphasis,” Dotson said after the game. “Just making sure we don’t force anything. That’s a credit to Sean just because he was patient with us, he made his right reads, and made the right plays.”

Making the right reads was something Clifford struggled with in 2020. While the 2019 version of himself was always poised and often explosive, the 2020 version of himself was a liability. He threw multiple interceptions in three of Penn State’s nine games last year.

Now two games into the 2021 campaign, the quarterback has been nearly flawless with his decision-making. While he’s missed on some tough deep balls, Clifford has undoubtedly been a much better signal-caller this season. Penn State always preaches ball security, and it has delivered so far.

Clifford had to make adjustments over the offseason to focus on taking care of the football. Under a new offensive coordinator, the quarterback said the team did lots of reflection to get to the root of the problem.

“Being careful with the ball, that’s the biggest thing. And talking about it,” Clifford said. “Saying ‘Hey, we had a turnover today, why was it a turnover? Was it stupid..could you have done something to make it more controllable?’ And if so, you learn from it.”

Penn State’s offensive identity will likely evolve as the season continues, but right now it seems to be working well. The Nittany Lions get the ball in lots of guys’ hands and take advantage of mistakes. So far, it’s exactly what they’ve needed to win games.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected].

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