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Public Service Announcement: Sean Clifford Deserves More Respect

If Penn State football fans were able to pin a relationship status on their collective connection with quarterback Sean Clifford, the appropriate label would be defined as “complicated.”

From leading the Nittany Lions to their first-ever top-four ranking in the College Football Playoff polls in 2019 to headlining an offense that curbed Penn State to its only 0-5 start in program history in 2020, Clifford has been subjected to high scrutiny for most of his six-year tenure in Happy Valley. 

Two weeks ago, the super senior began his fourth consecutive campaign as the Nittany Lions’ starting signal caller. While 34 games of starting experience under center should typically be deemed as a positive at the quarterback position, many blue and white faithful are all-in on jumpstarting the career of coveted true freshman and former five-star prospect Drew Allar. 

Toward the midway point of the second quarter during Clifford’s steady 213-yard passing performance against Ohio, “We want Allar!” chants started to audibly radiate amongst Beaver Stadium’s 22,000-seat student section. 

In this case, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” couldn’t be more true. Whether you like it or not, or even if you’re simply looking for someone other than No. 14 to trot out under center for James Franklin’s squad, Clifford deserves the utmost respect from students and fans alike after commanding three different offensive systems better than almost every other Big Ten quarterback could. 

Looking back at Clifford’s three previous seasons as starting quarterback, the Nittany Lions have finished fifth, fourth, and fourth in total passing among all Big Ten teams. The year Penn State finished fifth in that category, which happened to occur during the squad’s last 11-win season in 2019, Clifford spearheaded the second-highest scoring offense in the conference by helping post 35.8 points per outing. 

Moreover, while Clifford threw for less than 2,700 yards during his first season as a starter, the redshirt sophomore continually protected the rock by limiting turnovers and capitalizing on explosive play opportunities. Following the Nittany Lions’ 28-7 beatdown of Michigan State in October 2019, the Ohio product tallied an impressive 20-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio heading into the program’s crucial November slate.

Although many across Penn State football’s fan base might connect the Nittany Lions’ bleak 0-5 opening stretch the following year to Clifford’s atypical offensive carelessness, it’s important to consider every limiting factor here. During the same span, Franklin’s defense failed to allow less than 30 points in five consecutive conference matchups for the first time since joining the Big Ten in 1993. 

Undoubtedly, tossing eight interceptions across the first five losses failed to help the Nittany Lions in any way, but on the flip side, Clifford still finished four of those matchups with a passer rating of at least 107. For reference, quarterbacks that score in the 80-95 range are considered to be “effective” under center. In no way did Clifford “wow” at any time during the historic losing streak, but it would be insensible to place the entirety of the blame on his shoulders.  

Setbacks aside, Clifford finished a rocky 2020 campaign as the fourth-leading passer in the Big Ten with 1,883 yards through the air in nine conference games. Comparatively, Trace McSorley, who many regard as the greatest Penn State quarterback of the 2000s, threw for 1,681 total yards against nine Big Ten teams during his senior run in 2018. Ironically, the two counterparts are often talked about in entirely different sentiments.

For the most part, the same story holds true for Clifford’s third season as the starting signal caller in 2021. Prior to suffering a gruesome “rib area” injury against Iowa, as he described it in August, the Nittany Lions appeared to be untouchable after embarking on a fiery 5-0 start. 

Throughout the early season spurt, which featured a pair of ranked victories over No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 22 Auburn, Clifford’s efficiency appeared to reach an all-time high. At the week five benchmark, the veteran had completed over 67% of his passes for an average of nearly 268 passing yards per game. 

From there, Clifford produced three more performances with over 300 passing yards, but the nagging injury hindered his ability to consistently create on the ground outside the pocket — an area he excelled in earlier last year. During the final six regular-season matchups, Clifford was sacked 22 times, equaling the most of any quarterback in the Big Ten during that span. 

While it’s ridiculously easy to place the blame of an 11-11 record over the last two seasons on common denominators — which, in this case, happen to be Clifford and Franklin — doing so would be completely ignorant and asinine. 

Just look at the progression of Mike Yurcich’s offensive system so far in his second season under Franklin’s lead. For the first time in the modern recruiting era, Penn State has five former four-star prospects starting across the offensive line. Additionally, the veteran receiving core consisting of Mitchell Tinsley, Parker Washington, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith entered the year with more returning receiving yards than every other group in the Big Ten.

With a better-rounded supporting cast at his disposal, Clifford has garnered over 245 passing yards per matchup through two games, even after sitting out for almost the entirety of the second half against Ohio. And, despite tossing a costly pick-six to the Purdue secondary in week one, the sixth-year product currently holds the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the Big Ten at 5-to-1. 

So, let’s pump the breaks, folks. Clifford certainly isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t have to be for the Nittany Lions to seek on-field improvement this year. With a retooled supporting cast and a proven track record of posting more than serviceable outputs, the savvy veteran is surely the right choice to lead Penn State under center. In fact, this topic shouldn’t even be debatable.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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