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‘A Lot Of Ups’: Sean Clifford Says Goodbye With Rose Bowl Victory

At the Rose Bowl’s postgame press conference, Penn State head coach James Franklin fielded questions alongside game MVPs Sean Clifford and Ji’Ayir Brown.

Toward the end of the scrum, a reporter began asking Clifford to reflect on his career’s “ups and downs,” but Franklin sharply interrupted.

“A lot of ups,” Franklin said. “A lot of ups, a few downs.”

Clifford owns almost every quarterback record in Penn State’s history, but some would argue a signature win was lacking from his resume. Over his tenure, the Nittany Lions were winless against Ohio State. After an injury, Clifford was forced to leave a top-four road matchup with Iowa in 2021. His sole bowl victory came in a 2019 blowout against Memphis, hardly whetting the appetites of many hungry fans.

That changed Monday night.

Roughly a month after Clifford’s near-perfect display in Penn State’s 35-16 Senior Day win against Michigan State, the Nittany Lion quarterback raised the stakes with a career-defining performance to clinch a Rose Bowl Championship.

Clifford finished the game with 297 passing yards and two touchdowns after completing 16 of his 22 passes. His night was highlighted by an 88-yard bomb to KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a fourth-quarter touchdown –– a record for the longest pass play in Rose Bowl history.

“It was up for debate whether we wanted to take a shot,” Clifford said. “It was third-down-and-4, and I’d been seeing the same look all game, so I was definitely a proponent for taking that shot, and I know KeAndre wanted it, too.”

With two minutes and 22 seconds remaining and the game well out of Utah’s reach, Franklin called a timeout and substituted Clifford off the field, allowing Penn State fans to offer Clifford a farewell ovation. A visibly emotional Clifford hugged his teammates, some old like PJ Mustipher and others new like Drew Allar.

“It was something special. I’m just glad I was a part of his journey because he’s going to do great things in football and off the field,” Allar said. “We didn’t even say anything. We just embraced each other.”

Though Clifford was incredibly efficient through the air, finding open receivers downfield and zipping passes into tight windows, arguably his most important influence came as a pre-snap leader. Countless times throughout the game, Clifford sank well into the play clock, using his opponents’ tendencies to adjust protections, players, and play calls.

“They did a really good job of preparing for us,” Clifford said. “Once we understood, okay, they’re going to be coming out in this more, once we saw that defense, it was easier to start to scheme some things up, really hone into specific parts of the game plan.”

As a captain and veteran of the team, Clifford maneuvered (dare we even say managed) the game with ease. After the game, Clifford took time to pay homage to the leaders of his freshman campaign.

“I came up with some great leaders when Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens and Billy Fessler [were] in the QB room and [had] great leaders on that team in 2017,” Clifford said. “Just being able to see those faces of my teammates, it just means the world. Just couldn’t be prouder to be a Penn Stater.”

Clifford’s win at the Rose Bowl potentially allows him to ascend into the echelon occupied by McSorley and similar university icons. With few Nittany Lions being able to claim a victory in the Grandaddy of Them All, it’s a boon for No. 14. The postseason victory is certainly meaningful for Clifford’s legacy, but it’s also meaningful to the quarterback himself.

When Clifford was in elementary school, his father surprised him with tickets to visit the Rose Bowl. That vacation ended up being a poignant point in Clifford’s journey.

“I just remember really falling in love with football, specifically falling in love with the quarterback position,” Clifford said. “For it to come full circle and then to be able to just be a spoke in the wheel for this team in the Rose Bowl is just such a blessing.”

When the moment came for Clifford to address the media as Penn State’s starting quarterback for the final time, he reflected on the impact of those around him.

“I just respect, love and appreciate every single man that has came through Penn State’s program and impacted me in whatever way, whether that be coaches, administration, staff, and especially my teammates,” Clifford said. “[Ji’Ayir Brown] and I always talk about it. Because it doesn’t matter race, religion, where you’re from, I’ve got brothers for life in that locker room. I just can’t thank everybody enough for my experience at Penn State. I cherished every minute of it, the ups and the downs. I just couldn’t be more thankful.”

Of course, the prevailing story of Clifford’s career will be fiercely dependent on those who tell it. As a lightning rod for frustration about the program, Clifford’s head has been called for in favor of Allar, Christian Veilleux, and Will Levis to name the obvious. But regardless of the calls for his removal, Clifford remained a consistent focal point of the Nittany Lion offense –– the culmination of which was Penn State’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1995.

REPORTER: Sean, you had a Penn State career with so many ups and downs —
FRANKLIN: A lot of ups.
REPORTER: To end your career on a day like this.
JAMES FRANKLIN: A lot of ups, a few downs.
SEAN CLIFFORD: Appreciate that, Coach.

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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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