Searching For Sixth-Year Savvy: Sean Clifford Mid-Season Evaluation
The Penn State Nittany Lions are 5-0, ranked No. 10 in the country and you’d think that’d erase a lot of the doubt surrounding the quarterback position. Well, with how dominant the defense has been and rampant the rushing attack, the quarterback’s shortcomings are brought to light a little bit more – especially when you’re in your sixth year.
There haven’t been many sixth-year quarterbacks in the history of college football, and that type of experience is what people pay prime price for. Clifford started off the season strong, posting career performances in wins against Purdue and Auburn. But his play has visibly taken a step back the last two matchups before the bye week, to the point where it’s impossible to ignore.
There are a lot of parts of the game that usually go hand-in-hand with experience, so I think he’s subject to a little bit of scrutiny.
But let me hype him up a bit first, because he deserves it.
It isn’t often that there’s a sixth-year quarterback starting his fourth-straight season, albeit one slightly shortened. It’s even more of an anomaly when there’s a five-star freshman waiting in the wings.
I don’t think Drew Allar has this team at 5-0. Clifford has taken care of business and done what he needs to do, which has largely been the case for his whole career. If Penn State goes 1-2 over the next three games at Michigan and against Minnesota and Ohio State, then we can revisit the question about who should start under center. But for now, Clifford is the guy.
If you think Allar is entering Ann Arbor and beating Michigan or surmounting Ohio State’s dominant defense and C.J. Stroud, you’re out of your mind, respectfully.
Allar is special and has tremendous upside, but in my eyes, there’s nothing he’s done that warrants starting over Clifford.
Clifford was one Minnesota loss away from a top-four ranking and an 11-win season in 2019. In 2021, he had the team at 5-0 and was an unclassified upper body injury away (likely ribs) from taking the team to another top-four slot.
This year, he’s shut out the noise and criticism and led Penn State to another 5-0 start and a top-10 ranking in the AP Poll. The bottom line is he produces, so sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.
Clifford’s a proven leader, has heart, a good arm and knows how to use his legs. There’s the occasional accuracy, decision making and bad read blunder that holds him back from truly being an elite shot caller. But still, he’s managed to make plays when it matters most and has become one of the most successful quarterbacks in program history.
He’s 27-13 as a starter, and 23-8 (74 winning percentage) if you eliminate the COVID-year. Trace McSorley went 31-9 (78 winning percentage) in his three years as QB1 and holds the record for most wins for as a Penn State starter, which Clifford could end up eclipsing when it’s all said and done.
I don’t always encourage using win/loss to evaluate quarterbacks, especially in this case considering that Clifford had better defenses to work with, and McSorley had Saquon Barkley at his disposal. But it shows how much Clifford has accomplished as a starter, and why the flack that he constantly catches from the fanbase is completely unwarranted.
It also compares Clifford to arguably the best gunslinger in program history, and that in reality he’s not too far off. Clifford is close to eclipsing some of his program records as well.
He’s demonstrated that he can win time and time again and continuously shows up in big games. His teammates and coaching staff haven’t given him the best product to work with all the time, but Clifford always comes to play and leaves it all out on the field, even if it comes with a mistake or two.
However, with all of that said…
Clifford needs to elevate his game to another level if he plans on flipping the narrative surrounding his Penn State career. He has all the tools to do it – physically and mentally – he just needs to execute, not try to do too much and let his playmakers make plays for him.
For example, he needs to eliminate plays like this.
It was raining, so I’ll give that to him. But still, there aren’t a ton of excuses that you can make for throws like these.
Let’s rewind another week and take a peek at his performance against Central Michigan.
This is another house call that he misses.
Clifford’s not going to be a perfect quarterback and he’s allowed to make mistakes. The problem is – the margin for error is slim to none against Big Ten powerhouses like Michigan and Ohio State. Against Central Michigan, for example, Clifford can get away with it.
The past two games have felt like a regression, and I think these plays paint a perfect picture of his insufficiencies. I thought that he’d gain mountains of momentum from the Auburn annihilation, aiding his leap forward against the upcoming competition.
Maybe he’s still recovering from this hit by Owen Pappoe…
All jokes aside, Clifford is a rock-solid starting quarterback. He’s dealt with some tough breaks as a starter too, but has weathered the storm and became more than a reliable and consistent option for the Nittany Lions.
They're a young team that needs an established leader, which Clifford is and then some. It’ll come in handy for the impending gauntlet that Penn State's schedule presents.
Although, he needs his playmakers, the defense and the coaching staff to be on their A-game as well. The Nittany Lions must be firing on all cylinders.
But if Clifford kicks it into another gear, the rest will follow.
If not, hold on for the roller coaster ride.
Zach Donaldson is a fifth-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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