Evaluating Sean Clifford’s Season So Far

For many Penn State fans, watching Sean Clifford is a quarterback Rorschach test. Depending on who you ask, his season has either been an improvement or a liability waiting to expose itself.

Those who pine for Drew Allar will overlook Clifford’s high points, such as his game-winning drive against Purdue. Those who don’t yet trust the freshman will discount Clifford’s bad stretches, such as his awful second quarter against Central Michigan.

Through five games, Clifford has amassed 1,030 passing yards, nine touchdowns, and two interceptions at a 62% completion rate. On the ground, No. 14 has picked up 67 yards and four touchdowns. This is all en route to the Nittany Lions’ current 5-0 record, of course.

Still, with his noticeable ups and downs, the court of public opinion remains undecided on Clifford. Among his Big Ten peers, he ranks 10th in passing yards and completion percentage but second-best in touchdowns and interceptions.

As the Nittany Lions’ bye week continues and they continue prepping for a gauntlet conference schedule of Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State over the next three games, it felt like the right time to dive deeper into Clifford’s season.

Before this season kicked off, I conducted a similar examination, focusing on opposing and internal pressures facing Clifford. This assessment follows the same methodology.

To evaluate Clifford’s 2022 season so far, I rewatched all 295 of his non-kneel offensive snaps on the year. Just as was the case in the preseason, raw numbers don’t ever tell the full story, but they do offer more context. Here’s what I learned:

He’s Seeing Less Pressure

Ryan Parsons | Onward State

On 45% of his snaps last year, Clifford saw opposing pressure. That was partly due to poor offensive line play, Clifford’s lingering injury, and his decision-making.

This season, Clifford’s rhythm has been disrupted on just 19% of his snaps. Even when isolating the corresponding five-game split, the difference is evident. Through 2021’s 5-0 start, here were the pressure rates Clifford faced on passing plays:

  • Wisconsin: 36%
  • Ball State: 42%
  • Auburn: 19%
  • Villanova: 29%
  • Indiana: 39%

In 2022, Clifford has seen pressure at the following rates:

  • Purdue: 23%
  • Ohio: 23%
  • Auburn: 12%
  • Central Michigan: 26%
  • Northwestern: 11%

Clifford’s worst pressure situation this year (25.9% allowed against Central Michigan) would rank as second-best in 2021. This year’s sack numbers are similarly down, as Clifford has only been sacked four times compared to last year’s seven at this point.

The takeaways from these numbers aren’t self-evident. It’s easy to chalk up Clifford’s mid-game struggles against Purdue and Central Michigan to the games’ comparatively higher pressure rates, but there wasn’t an obvious uptick among snaps during those spells. Similarly, pressure rate alone doesn’t explain the discrepancy between his performances against Auburn and Northwestern.

Some of Clifford’s best drives, like the game-winner against Purdue and the touchdown drive immediately following his bad interception against Northwestern, saw very little pressure, but Clifford has still demonstrably struggled even when the pressure is tilting in his favor.

Not every FBS quarterback can thrive when things go wrong, but good ones take advantage when things go right. Clifford has to be more diligent about capitalizing on safer scenarios set up by his team.

He’s Running Less

Mikey DeAngelis | Onward State

Compared to past years, Clifford is running a lot less.

During last season’s 5-0 start, Clifford racked up 41 attempts for 137 yards when you factor out the sacks. So far this year, he’s only run 26 times for 67 yards.

You can also see it reflected in the pressure numbers.

This shows two things: Clifford is staying in the pocket more this year and the offensive line is keeping him better protected.

As previously mentioned, my pressure calculation is more lenient than others. If Clifford is made uncomfortable by the pass rush before they become unblocked, it counts as pressure. While the offensive line has definitely improved from last season, Clifford is noticeably more comfortable and confident controlling the pocket.

After the team’s game with Purdue, Clifford reported his pocket presence was a specific point of improvement over the offseason. He even admitted his quickness to bail on plays was a detriment to Penn State in past years.

“I’m gonna do anything in my power to make the play, to win the game, and I just see myself staying in the pocket more,” Clifford said.

Although Clifford’s speed is a weapon, that weapon is better deployed in specific situations. As a supplement to his game, rather than a feature, Clifford’s ground game has seen an improvement.

Mistakes Are Big Ones

Ryan Parsons | Onward State

As touched on before, Clifford’s decision-making has improved in terms of scrambling, but his reads in the passing game have gotten better, too. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, though. Far from it, in fact.

Clifford has made fewer mistakes this season than in years past, but when those mistakes rear their head, they are devastating.

Take Clifford’s bad interception against Purdue:

Without much oncoming pressure, Clifford made the correct read but sailed the ball directly to the opposing defensive backs. The pocket presence was there. The decision-making was there. But, the actual execution was not, instead resulting in seven points for Purdue and a three-point deficit for Penn State.

Against Northwestern, Clifford had another bad interception. Though he faced multiple free pass rushers, he again made the right read — a streaking Trey Wallace. But again, his execution was poor and the ball was nowhere near his receiver.

All in all, Clifford still only has two turnovers on the year. When he successfully capitalizes on the right reads, the results are impressive. Multiple times this season, Clifford has thrown perfectly timed balls to receivers before they turn or snuck passes through tight coverage. Though inconsistent, he’s shown an ability to throw teammates open.

Look at the tight window Clifford exploited against Ohio for a touchdown:

The biggest question moving forward is which Clifford will show up against the larger conference opponents.

When The Run Game Succeeds, So Does He

Teagan Staudenmeier | Onward State

For the first time since Clifford’s inaugural starting season, Penn State has a run game. The team’s running back resurgence has paid dividends in Clifford’s performance on the year.

The Nittany Lions are averaging around 80 more yards per game than last year on the ground. When the running backs threaten to explode, Clifford is far more dangerous. True freshmen Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen have given the offense more to draw from.

Play action is something opposing defenses have to take seriously. With almost double the amount of his snaps coming from under center (11% compared to last year’s 6.5%), Clifford and the team’s success rate is improving.

In the running backs’ four-fumble display against Northwestern, it’s no surprise that Clifford looked his least convincing all season. Unable to shoulder their share of the load, the running backs didn’t offer much of a safety net for their quarterback.

Clifford has never been the type of player to entirely take a game over. But given that, the improved run game has been a boon. As Penn State gears up to play more stout defenses, the balanced offense will likely yield the best results for both Clifford and the team as a whole.

Parting Words

Alysa Rubin | Onward State

In places, Clifford has improved this season. In others, he remains frustrating. There is good reason to believe this year’s 5-0 start is more akin to 2019 than 2021, though.

The team around Clifford is much stronger, and the sixth-year senior has largely been able to use his veteran status to leverage that. Clifford is at his best when the team can get up and control the remainder of the game.

Despite its status as a quarterback slur in modern football, Penn State should embrace Clifford’s status as a game manager.

The calls for Drew Allar to usurp Clifford on the depth chart are emotional and misguided, especially given the strength of the Nittany Lions’ remaining conference slate. If Clifford can avoid the glaring mistakes, his decision making and leadership will make his presence invaluable.

Allar’s time will come. Prematurely making the move would benefit no one. Confusing motion with progress is how programs crumble. Still, with that said, if Clifford’s weaknesses begin to outweigh his strengths, the Nittany Lions will almost certainly pull the trigger.

And they should. But that hasn’t happened yet. If James Franklin’s team is to continue its success out of the bye week, it will come with Clifford on the field — regardless of if it’s because of him or not.

Penn State will continue its season on the road on Saturday, October 15, against No. 4 Michigan in a Maize Out. Kickoff is set for noon, and the game will be televised on FOX.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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