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With Sean Clifford Limited, Ta’Quan Roberson Deserved A Start Against Illinois

You didn’t need to be a doctor to see Sean Clifford wasn’t his typical self in Penn State football’s devastating loss to Illinois Saturday afternoon.

Despite having the bye week to try and recover from an injury sustained against Iowa, the quarterback was still visibly in pain. He could be seen heading to the medical tent on at least one occasion and was slow to get up from a few big hits against the Fighting Illini.

James Franklin said postgame that the situation surrounding Clifford’s availability was fluid all week, but he made enough progress that coaches and the medical staff were comfortable starting him.

“We had confidence that [he would be able to play], but we weren’t sure. He got better every single day,” Franklin said. “The feedback that we were getting from the trainers and the doctors and from Sean was that he’d be able to go today. Obviously, that’s a day-to-day thing.”

Franklin added that he and the staff felt, despite being “limited,” Clifford gave Penn State “the best chance to win.”

Now, there still hasn’t been any public confirmation on what injury Clifford has been dealing with. There also wasn’t any statement on what percentage the captain was operating at against the Fighting Illini. Most notably, however, the quarterback just wasn’t using his legs and moving in the pocket with the same effectiveness he has all season. Clifford was a non-factor in the rushing attack — something that’s been an important part of Penn State’s offense all season — and he wasn’t comfortable scrambling when needed.

Franklin acknowledged this and noted that Penn State tried to mix in plays to running backs and more passing plays to “take some of that off of him.”

“Obviously, it’s a big part of his game that he didn’t have today,” Franklin said.

If the Nittany Lions knew they wouldn’t have a perfectly healthy Clifford on Saturday, what is their confidence level in backup Ta’Quan Roberson?

Franklin partially answered this question at his Tuesday presser when he noted there wasn’t a huge gap between Roberson and the presumed third-stringer, true freshman Christian Veilleux.

“A player that’s been in the program for a couple of years should really be widening that gap, and a player that’s been in the program for less amount of time, he’s gotta close that gap as much as he can,” Franklin said. “But if it’s close, it really shouldn’t be. The guy that’s been in the program for a long time and is getting the most reps should be able to widen that gap, and right now it’s somewhat close.”

This can be looked at as a compliment to Veilleux rather than a knock on Roberson, but either way, it’s a telling look into a position group that Franklin doesn’t always shed light on. If the confidence level in Roberson is low, how much worse would Clifford need to feel to give the redshirt sophomore a chance to start against the Fighting Illini?

He obviously struggled against Iowa, but if Penn State used the bye week to prep Roberson as the Homecoming game starter, it’s not ridiculous to think he could run the offense to the same level — or possibly better — than Clifford did Saturday.

Clifford faced heavy criticism after 2020, and he deserves a world of credit for how he bounced back and led this offense through the first half of this season. When he was knocked out against the Hawkeyes, it was immediately obvious how important he is to the team. However, Clifford’s mobility is what’s made the difference for him this season, and he just didn’t have that on Saturday.

It’s easier to consider all of this in hindsight, but Roberson came to Penn State for a reason. He arrived to Happy Valley as a four-star dual-threat quarterback, and it’s hard to imagine that talent couldn’t be used by Mike Yurcich in some positive manner.

Illinois was 2-5 entering this game and had statistically one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten. It wouldn’t be surprising if Franklin and the rest of the staff felt a limited, Clifford-led offense would still manage to win against the Fighting Illini. Now, however, the Nittany Lions sit in quite the predicament. Clifford took several big hits Saturday, and that won’t do anything to help his recovery with No. 5 Ohio State looming on the horizon.

There’s plenty to take away from Saturday’s ugly defeat, but Penn State’s questionable decision to start a banged-up Clifford rather than a healthy Roberson must sit toward the top of the list.

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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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