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Penn State Football: What Clifford’s Turnovers & the Turnover on Defense May be Hiding

The Sean Clifford of the Big Ten in 2020 is eerily similar to the Sean Clifford of the Big Ten in 2019.

At least in most statistical categories.

(We’ll get to the turnovers in a minute.)

Clifford played eight Big Ten games in 2019. He’s played eight Big Ten games in 2020. Actually, make that 7-1/2 games. Both seasons.

In 2019, Clifford was knocked out of the Ohio State game after one drive in the third quarter, and he subsequently missed the regular-season finale the next week against Rutgers.

In 2020, backup QB Will Levis drew the start against Iowa, though Clifford came off the bench in the second half to throw two touchdown passes — and two picks.

Here’s Cliff by the numbers in Big Ten games:

Running

2020 — 90 carries, 324 yards, 3.60 ave., 3 TDs; 123 yards lost rushing.

2019 — 78 carries, 287 yards, 3.56 ave., 4 TDs; 86 yards lost rushing.

Passing

2020 — 136 of 229 (59.39%), 1,598 yards, 14 TDs, 9 int., 199.75 ypg, 18 sacks.

2019 — 134 of 224 (59.82%), 1,740 yards, 16 TDs, 6 int., 217.5 ypg, 14 sacks.

Here’s what’s different:

It’s a pandemic.

Penn State is 3-5 v. 6-2 in the Big Ten games Cliff played in 2019.

He’s missing his All-Big Ten tight end, Pat Freiermuth, and Journey Brown, who averaged 98 yards and nearly two TDs per game in the final four Big Ten games of 2019.

There’s a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca and a kinda new offense. Levis runs the ball — a lot.

What is not different:

The QB and the head coach. The O-line is essentially the same, losing just one starter. Jahan Dotson is still Jahan Dotson, only better.

And Parker Washington is essentially KJ Hamler. In the eight Big Ten games that Clifford played in 2019, Hamler’s stat line was 39 catches, 591 yards, 15.1 ypc. and 6 TDs. Parker, in eight Big Ten games in 2020, has a line of 35 catches, 473 yards, 13.5 ypc. and 6 TDs.

CLIFF NOTES

Now, let’s compare Cliff’s miscues:

In eight Big Ten games in 2019, he had seven turnovers (six picks, one lost fumble) that led to 21 points. In eight Big Ten games in 2020, he has had 11 turnovers (nine picks, two lost fumbles) that have led to 47 points — including three pick/scoop-and-scores.

Compare that to Penn State’s three most recent games of 2020 — wins against Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State — and Clifford has had just one turnover, an interception against Rutgers. And kudos to the O-line: he’s been sacked just twice.

In the first three games of 2020 — losses to Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland — Clifford had six turnovers and was sacked 13 times.

Clifford, a really smart guy who is hyper-self-critical, understands the dichotomy better than anyone.

‘Against Indiana, I felt good, but I had a couple of turnovers and that was uncharacteristic of myself,’ he said after Penn State’s 39-24 win over Michigan State victory last week. ‘It’s crazy when you look at how much turnovers impact a team. I never really thought of myself as someone who turns over the ball a lot. But, you look at the stats and I was turning the ball over left and right.’

When the sacks and the turnovers stopped, the Penn State offense returned to 2019 form.

‘I’m a smart player, I know that Coach (James) Franklin and Coach Ciarrocca know that too and they trust me.,’ Clifford said. ‘But at the same time, I just wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. The past three weeks I have confidence in myself to pass the ball, move the ball downfield and at the same time take care of the ball. I’m not nervous about turning it over. Every play, I understand how important the ball is; the ball is the program. But at the same time, I’m not worried. It’s nice to kind of have my swagger back like that.’

But, let’s not get too swaggy. There’s a big but:

Lest we forget, the Penn State Offense of 2019 was not all that flashy. (79 points vs. Idaho doesn’t count.)

Take away the 59 Penn State hung on a very discombobulated Maryland squad in its Big Ten-opener last year, and the Nittany Lion offense averaged 26.43 points per game with Clifford under center (and Ricky Rahne calling the plays).

In eight games in 2020, Penn State’s offense has averaged 26.50 points.

Couldn’t be closer — 26.43 vs. 26.50.

The difference, even without Brown, Noah Cain, Freiermuth and sometimes Devyn Ford? What Franklin has been saying all season:

Turnovers.

But lost in all of this has been that Penn State’s offense – no matter the state of world health, the Falconry of Will Levis, the change in primary receivers, the loss of running backs, and a new O-coordinator — has been remarkably consistent.

Just not great, its 39 points vs. Michigan State notwithstanding.

It’s why Rahne was encouraged to take the head coach’s job at Old Dominion. Why Ciarrocca was hired. And why his seat is a bit warm.

ON THE DEFENSIVE

There’s been an even bigger difference:

Penn State’s defense.

In the eight Big Ten games that Clifford played in 2019, the Nittany Lion defense gave up 111 points.

In eight Big Ten games in 2020, the Nittany Lion defense has given up 228 points. More than twice as many. Per game, it’s 13.9 vs. 28.5 points.

Certainly, things would have been different if Micah Parsons had stuck around and played.

But in 2020 the Penn State defense also had to replace six other starters — D-linemen Yetur Gross-Matos and Rob Windsor; linebackers Cam Brown and Jan Johnson; and D-backs Garrett Taylor and John Reid.

Together, those six players took 143 starts with them. Counting Parsons, that’s a loss of seven starters and 156 starts.

D-coordinator Brent Pry, even if he played linebacker himself, was not going to replace all that talent, all that experience, all that wisdom, all that cohesion, himself. Especially with no spring drills, a limited preseason camp and the departure of Coach Chaos.

The Penn State defense is playing better — it has given up a total of 48 points in its last dozen quarters. Take away the 21 points by Michigan State in the second quarter last week, and the Nittany Lion defense has given up just 27 points in its last 11 quarters. That’s ballin’.

For as bad and undisciplined and unaggressive and rookie-dumb the Penn State D was in the first five games, it is so much better in its last three games. Thus, three wins.

TALENT TURNAROUND

So, yes — Cliff’s turnovers hurt. As did those by Levis.

But, just as costly for the Nittany Lions in 2020, was the turnover in the defensive starting lineup.

Penn State’s defense has righted itself, and should be back to being great in 2021. Pry is still The Guy.

The offense?

That’s another story; 26 points per conference game is merely good, hardly great and definitely not elite. (Which may explain the Ohio State dominating-the-state signings of PA high school superstars Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Kyle McCord the past two Decembers.)

And, given Penn State’s 5-7 record over its past dozen Big Ten Conference games, the point(s) is that good is hardly good enough.