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Penn State Football: Lots to Like About Sean Clifford…But It’s Just the Start

by on September 15, 2019 6:00 PM

There’s a somewhat goofy affability about Sean Clifford.

He’s the kind of kid who conducts his first post-game interview as Penn State’s starting quarterback — following a 79-7 beatdown of Idaho — with the collar of his white polo shirt turned inside-out.

And doesn't even realize it until the crowd of 30-some reporters thins to just a handful.

That breezy, upbeat and unaffected quality — a bit reminiscent of teen Josh Baskin-turned Tom Hanks in “Big” — reappeared in the Beaver Stadium media room on Saturday, after the Nittany Lions’ nail-biter against Pitt.

Clifford entered the room with a half of a slice of pizza in one hand and the other half in his mouth. But before he sat and faced two dozen denizens of the press, he took another quick bite. Forget Man vs. Food; in this case, it was Pizza vs. Press, and the post-game snack won out.

Not a surprise, in some ways. There’s a certain incongruence about Clifford.

These days, Cliff sports a little goatee, a la predecessor Trace McSorley, which seems in conflict with his baby face and tight crop of curly hair.

He’s a team captain and leader. Although he turned 21 this summer, at times he seems younger — like in the media room or in pre-game warm-ups, when he’s laughing and bopping around and engaging in long-bomb, hit-the-goal post contests with his fellow QBs.

Not that Clifford can’t be serious. At times, at least in the past, he was too serious. Like when as a freshman he broke his hand in frustration during offseason workout drills. Or when the news broke that Tommy Stevens was leaving, and Clifford stepped into the void and said he’ll captain the ship.

Now he’s The Guy. 3-0 as a starter and developing into the latest version of the Lion King of the Long Ball.

The numbers bear that out:

Nationally, Clifford ranks sixth in passing yards per completion (17.75 yds.), 13th in passing yards per attempt (10.41 yds.), and 22nd in both passing efficiency (172.5) and total offense (298 yds., which puts him No. 1 in the Big Ten in that category).

Then there’s the fact that he’s yet to throw a pick, which places him tied for first nationally with 26 others.

But, to be Franklin with you, Clifford was not always slated to be the starter in 2019.

At different points in the past few years, the guy penciled in as this year’s starting Nittany Lion QB was not the first two-time team captain in St. Xavier (Cincinnati, Ohio) football history who also led the Bombers to the Division Ohio State championship with a double-OT win over St. Ignatius. (We’re talking Clifford here, of course.)

Brandon Wimbush (now at UCF), Justin Fields (Ohio State) and then Stevens (Mississippi State) wore that mantle.

Now, they’re gone or never came to start. Pun intended.

And Cliff has climbed to the mountaintop. How the rest of the 2019 season plays out — with trips to Kinnick and East Lansing and The Shoe, plus that Whiteout vs. Jim and Josh still on the docket — is still a cliff-hanger.

As is the rest of his Nittany Lion career. A redshirt sophomore who’s a bona fide Academic All-Big Ten honoree, Clifford has two more seasons of eligibility after 2019 — if he wants or needs them, and if he keeps the No. 1 job.

For right now, though, Clifford heads into the bye week with no losses and no interceptions. No kidding.


Sean Burke Clifford is not without his flaws, however.

You should know this about Penn State’s starting quarterback, only its fourth in the past eight years: He can be his own toughest critic — in all that he does.

Understanding that, I asked him after Saturday’s game where he can get better. His answer was immediate, in three parts:

One: “I think third down, obviously, is one,” Clifford said.

And he’s right: Penn State ranks No. 125 out of 129 BCS teams on third-down conversions, at a 23.3% clip (7 of 30). (Though the Lions are 4 of 5 on fourth down.)

Two: “I think explosive plays down the field,” he added, “obviously today I should have played better in that regard. I think that I missed some deep balls that I usually hit. And I know I can hit.”

Deep shots, of which he has plenty of through three games, are a low-percentage play. That’s part of the reason that Clifford ranks 90th nationally in completion percentage — at 58.67% (44 of 75).

It’s not all on him. On Saturday, Penn State’s receivers suffered a relapse from 2018 of sorts, as four different Nittany Lions — KJ Hamler, Journey Brown, Jahan Dotson and Mac Hippenhammer — each dropped a pass.

As a result, Clifford had more incompletions (16) than completions (14) against Pitt. There was a stretch in the first half when he went just 2 of 11. Which means the rest of the day was a much-better 12 of 19. He was especially effective in crunch time down the stretch, as he completed 7 of his final 11 passes.

Three: “Those two areas are definitely big. And I think just in the run game a little bit. Just maybe making a few more plays. I need to do that, too.”

This is where Cliff’s occasional too-critical self-criticism manifests itself — his running prowess, from a 58-yard scramble down the left sideline vs. Buffalo to some neat maneuvers to repeatedly escape a sack against Pitt, has been a plus. He has 25 rushes for 113 yards, for a tidy 4.5-yard average.


As we’ve noted, after 75 passes, Clifford has yet to throw an interception. He’s tied for first in the country in that stat, with 26 others. This is reminiscent of gunslinger-turned-careful QB Matt McGloin — now the sideline reporter for the Penn State Radio Network, after a stint in the NFL — who had just five picks in all of 2012.

There’s a reason for that, Clifford said on Saturday. “Overall, I’m seeing the defense pretty well,” he said. “The game is really starting to slow down and I’m starting to see everything.”

Here are his 44 completions thus far in 2019 — 14 vs. both Idaho and Pitt, and 16 vs. Buffalo.

BY QUARTER — First, 11. Second, 12. Third, 17. Fourth, 4.

BY DISTANCE — minus 1 to 10 yards, 14. (-1, -1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 6, 7, 8, 8, 8, 9, 9)

10 to 20 yards, 16. (11, 11, 13, 13, 13, 13, 14, 16, 16, 16, 17, 17, 18, 18, 18, 19)

20 to 30 yards, 8. (20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 28, 28) 

Over 30 yards, 6. (36, 36, 40, 45, 53, 58)

FOR TOUCHDOWNS — 6 (21, 23, 28, 28, 36, 56)


After a week off, the Nittany Lions travel to College Park on Sept. 27 for a Friday night game against Maryland.

Look for a more balanced Penn State offense now that the Big Ten slate is beginning, and Penn State’s running game is starting to sort itself out. Journey Brown is a big-play threat and Noah Cain is the kind of back you can ride for a long drive. (Of course, he has to be in the game for that to happen; he wasn’t in the final quarter on Saturday. In his post-game presser, James Franklin admitted that Cain was certainly able to carry the load in the final stanza.)

Overall, through three games the Nittany Lion offense has been lopsided. They’ve gained 843 yards passing and 576 yards running, I know you take what the opponent gives you, but a 59% to 41% pass/run ratio is likely not sustainable throughout a Big Ten autumn — if you hope to win the big games.

CJF is confidently buoyed by his offense’s success on early downs and its perfect 12-for-12 scoring conversion rate in the red zone.

“I think we’ve got a really good scheme and game plan each week where some of the RPO stuff that we do creates conflict,” the Penn State head coach said on Saturday. “We felt good about our plan there.

“Recently the story for us is we have to continue to get better on third down and be a little more consistent. We missed a couple throws and a couple plays that we needed to make, but overall, I think we have a really good plan in the red zone. I think that has been a similar theme the last two years.”

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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