Pressure: What The 2021 Season Tells Us About Sean Clifford
One of the most passionately discussed topics of Penn State football’s offseason has been the return of starting quarterback Sean Clifford.
Some have expressed excitement about the experience and leadership associated with his veteran status. Others have expressed disappointment and frustration given the subpar team results over the past two seasons. The recent promotion of five-star true freshman Drew Allar to backup quarterback has only inflamed the debate.
Last season, Clifford was playing arguably the best football of his career prior to an undisclosed injury that led to Penn State’s second-half collapse against Iowa. The Nittany Lions continued on a rapid decline, losing four of their last six games.
Despite the loudest voices against Clifford, it felt as though the season fell apart without him at the helm. Since there is no definitive way to determine the veracity of that claim (and Clifford’s role as the starting quarterback is set in stone), we began an alternative quest — a quest to find what Penn State’s No. 14 excels at and struggles with.
In an attempt to track his strongest and weakest situations, I rewatched each of Clifford’s 768 non-kneel snaps from the 2021 season, collecting data and taking notes. While raw numbers never tell the whole story, they can offer a little more context on efficacy and what to expect in the coming year. Here’s what I learned:
The Offensive Line Must Help
I can already hear it. I know this is obvious. For years, one of the biggest knocks against James Franklin has been his offensive line’s inconsistency. 2021 was exceptionally poor.
You may know that Penn State allowed the most sacks of any team in the Big Ten last year. But, did you know that the Nittany Lions allowed pressure on about 45% of Clifford’s pass plays?
There is no universal standard for charting pressure against quarterbacks. In this exercise, I defined pressure as any visible effect on Clifford’s ability to remain in a comfortable cadence. For example, any time Clifford broke his drop back to tuck the ball or shuffle out of the pocket counted as a sign of defensive pressure.
Clifford currently holds the best completion percentage in program history at 60.4%. His 61% completion percentage in 2021 put him among the conference’s most accurate passers. In order to leverage his accuracy, Clifford requires time to evaluate his reads and place the ball.
The first pressure was physical. Penn State’s offensive line was far too porous.
The Nittany Lions won’t win football games if their backfield is disrupted as frequently as it was in 2021. Good teams win battles at the line of scrimmage. It’s that simple – no matter who’s behind the center.
His Injury Had Reverberating Effects
While the offensive line plays a transparently important role in sealing the quarterback off from pressure, the quarterback has some say in the matter as well. Quarterbacks who hold on to the ball too long are more likely to get sacked. Quarterbacks who anticipate pressure too early make rasher decisions.
Interestingly, after his injury against Iowa, the rate of defensive pressure rapidly accelerated. Prior to the Iowa game, these were the rates of pressure Clifford faced on passing plays:
- Wisconsin: 36%
- Ball State: 42%
- Auburn: 19%
- Villanova: 29%
- Indiana: 39%
After Iowa, Clifford saw pressure at the following rates:
- Illinois: 48%
- Ohio State: 57%
- Maryland: 50%
- Michigan: 64%
- Michigan State: 36%
- Arkansas: 68%
Naturally, some confounding variables were at play, such as a comparatively less active game script against Michigan State and numerous postseason opt-outs against Arkansas. Still, the shift seems noteworthy. It certainly was consequential.
Against Illinois, the game immediately following his injury, Clifford was not well-protected by play-calling. A heavy passing emphasis led to him taking multiple hits that left him wincing on the turf.
Furthermore, Clifford looked skittish as the game continued. Perhaps artificially inflating my pressure marks, Clifford was quick to scramble out of the pocket or preemptively release the ball. One would be forgiven for assuming Clifford was protecting himself.
Make no mistake, I’m not questioning Clifford’s toughness. The fact that he finished the season in spite of the punishment undertaken by his body is nothing short of admirable. But, at times, he appeared limited in comparison to his fully healthy self.
The second pressure was medical. Injuries are uncontrollable in football, but how teams react isn’t.
In Penn State’s last two full seasons (2019 and 2021), Clifford has missed important game time due to injury. If he were to face another injury in 2022, the Nittany Lions’ reserves must be prepared for game action. It does a disservice to Clifford and the team as a whole to trot an injured quarterback out to shoulder the load.
The Run Game Is Crucial
Another critique that has been levied ad nauseam is focused on the run game. Penn State boasted the Big Ten’s second-worst per-game rushing total with 107.8 yards, and zero running backs ever individually eclipsed the centennial mark in 2021
It’s clear offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich wishes to establish the run game in his system, and not just because of his press conference comments about the team’s offseason emphasis on doing so.
The Nittany Lions had at least one running back in the backfield for 89% of Clifford’s snaps in 2021. Just above 30% of those snaps included some form of a fake run, whether that be play-action, read option, or RPO.
The rationale for doing so is understandable. To create openings for the passing attack, the offense has to flash a legitimate threat of a run. With less than 7% of Clifford’s snaps coming under center, the reverse is also true — the threat of a pass aids the run game.
Last season’s abysmal run success tore at the fabric of that philosophy. Unpredictability on offense forces confusion and hesitance on defense. But, when only one facet of the offense is formidable, the result is anyone’s guess.
The third pressure was functional. Penn State’s running backs didn’t do an adequate job of making themselves valuable.
Returning starter Keyvone Lee showed burst at times but fell short others. Part of the blame falls at the feet of the offensive line, but 2022’s young running back room must perform better. When defenses feel comfortable containing half of an offense’s weapons, there’s not much wiggle room.
His Decision-Making Can Falter
The run game had more glaring issues, but the passing game was shaky at times, too. Notably, I found Clifford’s completion percentage significantly dropped when facing palpable pressure.
Clifford was remarkably consistent when he had time to survey the field and find a comfortable read. He was unafraid to air it out, doing so with the necessary touch.
When presented with a clear pocket, Clifford completed 81% of his passes. However, when pressured, Clifford’s percentage fell to just 35%. Six of his eight interceptions came under pressure as well.
Admittedly, there is a chance that my metric for pressure is more liberal than it should be. I also didn’t carry out a snap-by-snap review of any other Big Ten quarterbacks for comparison, so these numbers may not be as egregious when looking at his peers. In any case, this is an aspect of his game that Clifford will need to improve.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of Clifford is his experience. A veteran of his caliber needs to show more discipline under pressure. Clifford made his fair share of poor decisions over the course of 2021, including his interception against Iowa on his first play of the game.
The final pressure of 2021 was internal. Clifford’s poise under pressure was lacking.
No quarterback is going to enjoy a year of clean pockets. The best quarterbacks manage to overcome the hardship and elevate their team above its mistakes. The Nittany Lions are set for more of their recent history if Clifford can’t do so.
Only time will tell who will have the better Penn State career between Clifford and Allar, but that’s a discussion to be had years from now. What’s most important for James Franklin’s squad is the 2022 season, and the 24-year-old Clifford is the most obvious candidate to lead the Nittany Lions to a successful campaign in the short term.
No quarterback is perfect, and Sean Clifford is no exception. A cohesive, competitive team puts its best players in situations where they are most likely to succeed, and those players must capitalize on those situations. Penn State is no different. Don’t cash out on the Nittany Lions just yet. Certain adjustments from 2021 can greatly extend their runway in 2022.
Penn State begins its season Thursday night against conference foe Purdue in Black Out conditions at Ross-Ade Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m., and the game will be televised on FOX.
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About the Author
A visit from Pat Freiermuth and “We Want Drew” chants highlighted another busy Saturday in Happy Valley.
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