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Sean Clifford, Penn State Football Proving 2020 Struggles Were An Anomaly

In case there was still any doubt, No. 10 Penn State football is a damn good football team.

With the electric White Out victory over No. 22 Auburn Saturday night, the Nittany Lions now sit at 3-0 and possess one of the top early-season resumes in the nation. After 2020’s struggles, such undisputed success out of the gate wasn’t necessarily the expectation for many.

For James Franklin, however, simply chalking this team up to last year’s 4-5 record was always an unfair evaluation.

“I would hope, when you guys make comparisons, you’re making comparisons to the body of our work,” Franklin said. “I think the body of our work’s been pretty good.”

It’s tough to argue with Franklin here. Let’s not forget that just a year before the 2020 campaign, which was largely effected by COVID opt-outs and a laundry list of injuries, the Nittany Lions went 11-2 and finished with a marquee victory in the Cotton Bowl Classic. As a first-year starter, Sean Clifford led that year’s offense by tossing 189 completions worth 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Clifford obviously struggled right alongside with the Nittany Lions in 2020, as he finished a nine-game campaign with nine interceptions. His head coach was quick to note that, despite last year’s inconsistencies, that same guy from 2020 hasn’t gone anywhere.

“He’s taken some criticisms, so I’m super happy for him,” Franklin said. “He’s a tough-minded guy. He’s physically tough.”

Franklin added that Clifford made the plays he should’ve all night, but also made a few that stood out as ones he didn’t necessarily expect. Most notably, on Penn State’s first score, the veteran gunslinger ranged to his right out of the pocket and found Jahan Dotson wide-open in the back of the end zone.

“His preparation should lead to this. That’s not how the world works. Life isn’t fair. But for him right now, his preparation is leading towards success and I’m really happy for him. He is a great example for our program,” Franklin added.

Clifford finished his night with a nearly flawless stat line. Outside of his interception late in the first half, which effectively ended up a punt for Penn State, the quarterback was efficient and decisive in the pocket all night. He was never sacked, had just four incompletions on 32 attempts, and boasted 280 yards through the air along with the two scores.

Over the course of three games so far, the quarterback has finished each with no less than 230 passing yards and has racked up five total touchdowns. Clifford isn’t one to shy away from any critics, but up to this point, his play can do all of the talk for him.

“Last year wasn’t us. Everybody knew that,” Clifford said. “Even if you didn’t, I’m hoping that we’re proving it now.”

Of all the talent on this roster, Clifford had to handle much of the struggles that came with a COVID-adjusted football season head on. The quarterback was forced to lead an offense that lost its top two running backs essentially before the season even started, adjusted to a new coordinator over Zoom meetings, and couldn’t even get in-person work for several months.

Considering all of that, it’s tough to blame Clifford for not finding the same success he did in 2019. With a revamped offense, that’s loaded with weapons at wide receiver, has bruising rushers in Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee, and budding talent at tight end, the Nittany Lion is now flourishing — and reminding everyone exactly who he is.

For a while this offseason, it may’ve seemed unfair to blame all of last year on COVID and injuries. An unprecedented five straight losses to open the season isn’t generally something that just happens when you lose several key players. But with each win that rolls in for the Nittany Lions in 2021, it’s starting to become clear that 2020 was truly an anomaly for a team that’s stacked with talent.

Even on defense, Penn State has yet to be exposed at any position. The unit has flourished against top-tier teams early, and all signs are pointing to a productive season for Brent Pry’s group.

Aside from all the stars on either side of the ball, however, Clifford has proved most that he is absolutely the real deal. Already boasting wins over two Power Five giants, he and the Nittany Lions are far from where they were last December.

“I’m confident in our team. That’s where I have all the confidence in the world…It’s unbelievable what our team’s doing right now,” Clifford said. “It’s fun to come into work with all those guys.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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