A Look Back At Sean Clifford’s Polarizing Penn State Career

After six years with the team and four seasons as a starter, Nittany Lion quarterback Sean Clifford departed the program. Clifford’s career came to a close with a definitive Rose Bowl victory and more than his fair share of Penn State records.

Since January, the former No. 14 has been preparing for life after college football — both preparing for the NFL Draft and continuing his work in the NIL sphere.

After committing to the Nittany Lions in July 2015, Clifford saw a backup role in his first two seasons before earning the starting job in 2019. After garnering high expectations early, Clifford faced consistently polarized reactions from the Penn State faithful for the majority of his career as a starter.

Despite the outside noise, Clifford finished as the all-time leader in numerous passing stat categories, and he was a captain of two New Year’s Six bowl-winning teams. Although it sometimes seemed rocky, the Cincinnati, Ohio, native experienced a lot of ups during his long tenure in Happy Valley. Here’s a look back at his historic collegiate career.

In his inaugural season in the blue and white threads, Clifford donned a redshirt. However in 2018, he assumed the backup role behind one Trace McSorley.

Clifford first entered a Penn State game when the Nittany Lions were comfortably leading Pitt 44-6. On his first career passing attempt, Clifford found Brandon Polk for a 34-yard touchdown.

The following week, Clifford again saw game action in a relief capacity. During his brief on-field stint, he completed all three of his passes, including one to Daniel George for a school-record 95-yard touchdown pass — the first of many Penn State records to be captured by Clifford.

While Clifford would only attempt three more passes for the Citrus Bowl-bound Nittany Lions, he showed enough in practice and the offseason to be named the starting quarterback ahead of the team’s 2019 season.

In his first game as a starter, Clifford led Penn State to a 79-7 home victory over Idaho on 280 passing yards, two touchdowns, and 57 rushing yards. The following week, Clifford had another multi-touchdown effort, tossing four scores in a home win against Buffalo.

After a quiet showing in his team’s victory against Pitt, Clifford entered one of his best-ever performances on the road against Maryland. Despite the Terrapins canceling classes and adding seats to their stadium in preparation for their matchup with Penn State, the Nittany Lions ran wild.

Clifford, in particular, played a near perfect game en route to a 59-0 victory. No. 14 racked up 398 yards, three touchdowns, and only five incompletions.

Behind Clifford’s leadership, the Nittany Lions continued on an 8-0 run before dropping two of its next three — against Minnesota and Ohio State, respectively. After a dominant Cotton Bowl win over Memphis, Clifford finished his first year as a starter with 2,654 passing yards, 28 total touchdowns, seven interceptions, 402 rushing yards, and an All-Big Ten honorable mention.

In 2020, Clifford’s season was addled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of playing a full slate of games, Penn State only scheduled nine. What followed was the worst start in program history, as the Nittany Lions lost their first five games.

The off-year was characterized mostly by mistakes for Clifford, although he finished second in the Big Ten in passing yards and touchdowns. Through his nine appearances, Clifford amassed 1,883 passing yards, 19 total touchdowns, nine interceptions, and 335 rushing yards.

With the offseason hire of Mike Yurcich, Clifford entered 2021 with a new offensive coordinator for the third consecutive season. In spite of the inconvenient instability, Clifford began the year playing some of the best football of his career.

Through the Nittany Lions’ first five games, Clifford looked vastly more comfortable. Poised as the team’s leader, Clifford captained Penn State to a 5-0 start and a top-four ranking.

Opening the season on the road, the Nittany Lions were forced to dispatch Wisconsin in the Badgers’ home stadium. Another ranked win came against Auburn in the season’s White Out.

Clifford was incredibly efficient in his third career White Out. Only throwing four incompletions, the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback totaled 280 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The value of Clifford under center was proven when the Nittany Lions fell in a top-four matchup to Iowa. Although he tossed two interceptions, Penn State’s offense was productive with Clifford at the helm, but when he exited early with an injury, the offense stalled partially due to the inexperience of its replacement quarterback.

Although the team’s wheels derailed in the back half of the season, dropping six of its last eight including the 2022 Outback Bowl, Clifford broke 3,000 passing yards for the first time in his career. Clifford ended the year with 3,107 passing yards, 23 total touchdowns, eight interceptions, and 163 rushing yards.

For the first time in his career, Clifford entered the 2022 season with a returning offensive coordinator, and it paid dividends. Looming behind him was five-star true freshman Drew Allar, yet with the continuous support of head coach James Franklin, Clifford retained his starting job throughout the year and captained his team to the second Rose Bowl victory in program history.

Again beginning the season on the road, Penn State faced off against conference foe Purdue. Clifford threw for 282 passing yards and four touchdowns amid the hostile conditions, but his most impactful contribution came on the contest’s final drive. With less than a minute remaining, while the Nittany Lions were down three points, Clifford hit Keyvone Lee for a 10-yard game-winning touchdown.

The heroics of Clifford continued after the Nittany Lions’ week two home trouncing of Ohio. Penn State became the first Big Ten team to win in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. In the historic game, Clifford proved himself to be a true triple threat, completing 75% of his passes, scoring a rushing touchdown, and even logging his first career reception.

The Nittany Lions continued their winning ways, but Clifford again prematurely exited a game with an injury as his team fell. Clifford bounced back after the loss though, reversing his and his team’s recent history of snowballing losses.

In the following game, the White Out against Minnesota, Clifford performed admirably. He once again limited his mistakes and logged 295 passing yards and four touchdowns in turn.

Ultimately, the White Out success did not translate to the team’s subsequent conference matchup against rival Ohio State, as the Nittany Lions fell to the Buckeyes.

Clifford made good on his early career expectations at the 2023 Rose Bowl. Despite any criticism and outside pressure, Clifford was cool, calm, and collected. Penn State’s signal caller completed 76.2% of his passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns — and he protected the ball perfectly.

Although Clifford may not have always been universally popular among Penn State fans, it’s hard to justify complaints about the results of his final season. The future may be currently uncertain for the Nittany Lions’ former starting quarterback, but his past is decidedly important to the Penn State football program. As the all-time leader in passing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, and completion percentage (among other marks), Clifford will likely go down in history as one of the greatest to step foot in Beaver Stadium.

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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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