Onward Debates: Sean Clifford’s Ultimate Legacy

Six years spent in Happy Valley. Four campaigns as the Nittany Lions’ starting signal-caller. Two 10-win seasons. 

But through it all, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford still appears to boast one, unsettled legacy as his collegiate career is prepped to swiftly transition to a close.  

Whether you’ve supported Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford through thick and thin or if you adamantly called for a fresh face under center dating back to the Nittany Lions’ home-opening bout with Ohio, it seems as though most Penn Staters are unsettled regarding the Ohio native’s place amongst the greatest to don the blue and white. 

While opinions often lie, numbers don’t. Heading into the Nittany Lions’ highly-anticipated Rose Bowl matchup with No. 8 Utah, Clifford holds program records in passing yards, completions, career-spanning completion percentage, and, of course, pass attempts. 

With the polarizing quarterback’s curtain call looming, a few of our staffers set out to establish Clifford’s overarching legacy once and for all. After exiting Beaver Stadium with a victory over Michigan State, here are our final impressions of the gunslinger’s career following 45 starts under James Franklin’s tutelage.

Connor Krause: Sean Clifford Concluded His Career Appropriately Rated

If a quarterback finishes his career at the top of nearly every statistically recorded category at the position, he would typically claim a spot on a program’s Mount Rushmore as a result of his all-time, record-worthy accomplishments. 

But to list Sean Clifford as a top-four quarterback in Penn State’s long lineage of successful gunslingers would be utterly asinine and ignorant to Todd Blackledge, Kerry Collins, Trace McSorley, Michael Robinson, and several other worthy bonafide legends. 

With that said, the storied tenures of the transcendent passers listed above should in no way minimize Clifford’s run with the Nittany Lions. As it stands with only one, final performance hanging in the balance, the sixth-year staple should be appreciated for what he brought to the table, consisting of guts, a winning attitude, a team-first mentality, and a drive to better Penn State — both on and off the field. 

When Clifford’s four-year starting stretch ultimately comes to a close, true fans will remember the “Big Red Dog” for leading Penn State to a pair of 10-win campaigns, rather than a dismal 11-11 clip in 2020 and 2021. Whether you’re a loyal Clifford supporter or not, it would be unfair to pin the Nittany Lions’ offensive struggles during the depths of the conference-only, COVID-19 limited season solely on the starting quarterback. 

That year, Clifford and first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca were forced to virtually assimilate a brand new scheme and playbook through Zoom. Similarly, the second-year starter couldn’t garner chemistry with true freshmen pass catchers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith until the week of the season-opener against Indiana. In reality, any quarterback would’ve struggled through the Nittany Lions’ organizational abomination across the 2020 slate. 

While fans also pin a portion of the Nittany Lions’ 2-6 mark over the unit’s final eight contests in 2021 on Clifford, too, what really hindered Franklin’s squad was the gutsy quarterback’s health, which, in my opinion, equates to a poor representation of the program’s depth. For example, many will turn to Clifford’s 19-for-34 passing display for just 165 yards and a lone score against Illinois as a low point during his time in Happy Valley. 

In no way did Clifford impress in the 20-18, nine-overtime defeat at the hands of Illinois, but the starting gunslinger played every snap despite suffering a gruesome “rib area” injury the prior go-around against Iowa. Sure, we saw McSorley win games on the heels of lingering setbacks, as he did in a rainy Beaver Stadium battle with the Hawkeyes in 2018. But, Clifford’s career trajectory doesn’t stack up among the likes of McSorley, and they should both be celebrated in their own, separate ways. 

All in all, the Nittany Lions finished the current regular season ranked third in total offense among all Big Ten programs. Additionally, Clifford led Penn State toward eclipsing the fourth-most potent attack through the air, while also tossing the seventh-most yards of all conference signal callers. Most importantly, Clifford tossed 22 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions, leading to 10 wins with the squad’s only two falters coming to a pair of playoff-bound units. 

Clifford’s career wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be to ultimately wind up and earn the remembrance as a “good” and “serviceable” quarterback for the Nittany Lions. While fans likely wouldn’t categorize him as “great” due to his lack of signature victories, or conversely, they wouldn’t label him as “bad” due to his 31-14 starting record, the Ohio native’s career will be appropriately remembered as “solid” by Happy Valley’s faithful.

Devon Craley: Sean Clifford Concluded His Career As Overrated

I’m glad I ended up on this side of the debate about Sean Clifford. Honestly, backing him would’ve been hard given what I’ve seen these past four years.

Writing about how he’s overrated is going to be easy, so here I go. Before I go on the record saying anything negative, I want to make it clear that I am not rooting for him to fail or anything along those lines.

I’m a Penn State supporter through and through, and because of that, I hope he plays well and Penn State wins the Rose Bowl. With that being said, here’s why he’s not a good quarterback:

In 20 years, people who didn’t watch Sean Clifford are going to look at the record books and say “Oh, wow, this guy leads a category in this passing statistic, and he’s toward the top of the ranks in other passing stats.” In several ways, Clifford is a perfect example of why stats don’t tell the complete story.

Clifford is exactly who you think he is. He’s a good program guy, a good community guy, and a good leader. But in terms of on-field production and trying to compete for championships, Clifford is not your guy. He’s the absolute definition of a game manager, which is a guy that will earn you some wins against inferior opponents, but overall, he never had the ability to win you a season-defining game, let alone a championship.

If you were to come up to me in 15 years and ask me what the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Clifford is, my first thought is going to be his horrible performance against Minnesota in 2019. Penn State entered that game ranked No. 4 and lost to the Golden Gophers 31-26.

Clifford threw three picks and lost the game for Penn State, ending what could’ve been a very promising season. I understand picking out one game might be unfair, so let’s take a look at Clifford’s record against Michigan and Ohio State, the two biggest games on Penn State’s schedule each year. Clifford will leave Penn State with a dreadful record of 1-7 against the Wolverines and Buckeyes. Additionally, Clifford also owns a disappointing 6-10 record against ranked opponents heading into the Rose Bowl against No. 8 Utah.

The first few words or phrases that come to mind when thinking of Clifford are divisive, frustrating, and difficult to watch. From the time Drew Allar stepped on campus, I believed he should’ve been QB1 from the start. In the end, Clifford did nothing this season to make me think otherwise. If fans are chanting for the backup to come into the game, something has clearly gone wrong, and in my eyes, Sean Clifford did a lot more wrong than right on the field for Penn State.

To answer the question of what is Sean Clifford’s legacy, his record against ranked opponents tells you everything you need to know about his career at Penn State. I credit Clifford for giving this program and university everything he’s had for the last six years, but I can’t help but wonder how far we could’ve gone if we had someone else under center, especially in 2019.

Gabe Angieri: Sean Clifford Concluded His Career As Underrated

Before we get into it, let me make a few things clear. First off, football is a team sport. Clifford isn’t responsible for every Penn State loss over the last four seasons like many “fans” like to think. Secondly, Penn State isn’t Alabama or Georgia, and it’s about time this fanbase comes to terms with that. The Nittany Lions are not a perennial playoff contender, and they never have been since the CFP has been introduced. Why on earth is Clifford always criticized for not making the CFP when none of his predecessors did, either?

In two of his four seasons as Penn State’s starting quarterback, Clifford has helped lead the Nittany Lions to a New Year’s Six bowl. Penn State won the 2019 Cotton Bowl with Clifford at the helm, and it has the chance to win the 2023 Rose Bowl, too. This is only Penn State’s fifth all-time Rose Bowl appearance, too, by the way. I’d say two NY6 bowls in four years is pretty damn good…unless you’re an unrealistic fan living in la-la land.

Sure, critics of Clifford will point to the 2020 and 2021 seasons as failures. You also have to be fair, though, when evaluating those seasons. Clifford had three different offensive coordinators in 2019, 2020, and 2021 — Ricky Rahne, Kirk Ciarrocca, and Mike Yurcich. His two best seasons came in 2019 and 2022, which happen to be the only two times he’s had the same offensive coordinator back for more than one season. Coincidence? I don’t think so. There’s a lot to be said about continuity — it’s important, man.

To touch on 2021 again, Clifford was playing at an extremely high level until he suffered an injury against Iowa. That’s when the season went downhill, as it was clear he wasn’t close to 100% healthy after that. That needs to be factored in when talking about Clifford and his legacy.

It’s fair to say Clifford isn’t an elite quarterback. That’s not what he is. Yeah, he never beat Ohio State, either. That’s a fair criticism. But, he’s done a tremendous job representing this program and serving as a leader on and off the field. Being the quarterback of two teams that went to NY6 bowls isn’t something to overlook. It’s an impressive feat, especially if he ends up winning both.

In my mind, Clifford will be remembered as underrated just because of how much hate the guy gets. Penn State is literally smelling roses right now with Sean Clifford as its quarterback. Can we stop acting like Clifford is some sort of scrub? It’s honestly extremely tiresome.

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