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Lessons From A Rewatch Of Sean Clifford’s 2022 Campaign

After six years, Sean Clifford’s career in Happy Valley has come to an end. Although an exhibition Rose Bowl is still down the pipeline — a game he said you can “count on” him to play in – it is only a feather in his cap.

Clifford’s legacy is complicated. To some, he will go down as one of the program’s legends, having passed Trace McSorley in nearly every statistical category. To others, he will be maligned as a symbol of the Nittany Lions’ shortcomings.

The truth is that it feels as though many fans’ opinions of Clifford were fully formed before this season even began.

Prior to the season, I rewatched each of Clifford’s 2021 snaps in an attempt to evaluate what needed to change coming into this year. After five weeks, it appeared those concerns were largely addressed. But with the benefit of a season’s worth of hindsight, we have more clarity. Using the imperfect raw data, here’s what I found:

Offensive Line Injuries Were Damaging

Alysa Rubin | Onward State

After a relatively healthy start to the season, it’s no secret that Penn State experienced its issues with offensive line injuries late. Star left tackle Olu Fashanu missed the latter part of the season, left guard Landon Tengwall underwent season-ending surgery, and other key members rotated in and out of the medical tent throughout the year.

The pressure rate facing Clifford noticeably increased as his teammates in the trenches started dropping. Through 2022’s first five games, the Nittany Lions allowed pressure at the following rates:

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

Following the bye week, here are the pressure rates Clifford faced by game:

  • Michigan: 45%
  • Minnesota: 23%
  • Ohio State: 36%
  • Indiana: 42%
  • Maryland: 39%
  • Rutgers: 41%
  • Michigan State: 48%

It only took three weeks after the bye to match the amount of sacks Clifford took in the first five. With Fashanu and Tengwall both missing significant time, the left side of the protection dipped into the backups. And though true freshman Drew Shelton and returning senior Hunter Nourzad performed admirably, they are understandably downgrades from someone like Fashanu, who did not allow a sack all year.

There are, of course, other explanations for the escalation at the end of the year. For starters, the quality of the Nittany Lions’ opponents similarly increased by the end of the year. Both Michigan and Ohio State ended up in the College Football Playoff, so perhaps it’s expected that there would be a boost compared to Central Michigan and Ohio.

Although Clifford will obviously not be around next season, even the increased rates of pressure later in the season are an improvement over 2021’s. The highest pressure rate this season (48% against Michigan State) would have tied the second-lowest in last season’s home stretch.

Turnovers Are Misleading

Ryan Parsons | Onward State

One of the biggest criticisms of Clifford is that he commits too many turnovers. While his turnover rate increased in the second half of the season, rewatching him game-by-game makes the statistics confusing.

There were games like Minnesota, where he was near perfect. There were games like Michigan, where he didn’t commit a turnover but that was not necessarily indicative of his play. There were games like Ohio State, where he committed four turnovers.

Against the Buckeyes, Clifford threw three interceptions and was strip-sacked. However, one could easily argue that these four giveaways were not on the Nittany Lion quarterback.

Ohio State defensive end JT Tuimoloau had the game of his life, bullying Penn State offensive linemen left and right. On the way to Clifford’s fumble, backup right tackle Bryce Effner was fully turned around and immobilized, for example.

Still, there were other points in the game where Clifford made poor decisions or executed incorrectly but narrowly avoided allowing a change of possession.

Solely looking at the numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.

Play Action Increased Over Time

Kyra Cunningham | Onward State

Coming into this season, James Franklin and his staff touted the running back room as a strong one. With the team’s ground game struggling over the past two seasons, it was a beacon of hope — and a necessary way to take some pressure off Clifford.

True freshmen Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen more than held up their end of the bargain.

With Singleton racking up 941 rushing yards, 85 receiving yards, and 12 total touchdowns, he earned a Big Ten Freshman of the Year nod. Allen was similarly productive, recording 1,002 all-purpose yards and 10 total touchdowns of his own.

As the season continued, the duo’s ability became more apparent. As their ability became more apparent, so did the offense’s propensity to fake the run.

Before the team’s bye week, Penn State called run fakes in the form of play action and RPOs on 11% of passing plays. In the seven games afterward, the Nittany Lions feigned the run 33% of the time.

A potential confounding variable could be that Clifford and the offense were forced to play from behind against more teams and for longer, but teams were certainly game planning against Penn State’s run game by the end of the season and it’s unsurprising that offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich would use that to his advantage.

His Strengths Came Pre-Snap

Alysa Rubin | Onward State

Clifford had multiple moments where plays collapsed, he evaded pressure, and a receiver broke off for a deep pass before being subsequently overthrown. Plays such as these have haunted Clifford for years and have drawn the ire of fans across the country.

On the flip side, this particular deficiency highlighted a strength of his. Deep throws on-script were far more likely to succeed. Before the score got out of hand against Michigan, Clifford showed off his inconsistent pinpoint accuracy on a perfectly placed bomb to Trey Wallace.

Where five-star freshman backup Drew Allar perhaps has more raw talent than Clifford, the sixth-year senior had an obviously strong grasp of the Penn State offense.

Using false counts and general surveys of the defense, Clifford audibled out of unfavorable matchups and changed protections on the offensive line. Many a television commentator pointed that out as a unique value to Clifford under center.

Parting Words

Alysa Rubin | Onward State

Sean Clifford will go down in Penn State history as owning a complicated legacy. Despite owning a majority of the program’s all-time individual passing records, many fans will never look past his meager record against Ohio State and Michigan.

Regardless of one’s personal feelings about Clifford, it seems like he was the best option at quarterback for the team this year. Drew Allar saw plenty of in-game experience while Clifford largely took care of business, directing traffic and executing play calls.

Outside of this season, Allar is in a great position to take over what looks to be a very talented and young team. Clifford managed to keep the presumed starting spot warm for him, all while successfully captaining the team to a competitive game with Ohio State, a comeback victory against Purdue, the team’s first 10-win season since 2019, and a Rose Bowl berth. It’s hard to turn your nose up at that.

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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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