Sean Clifford looks back on six-year career before final home game
From breaking the program passing record to getting booed during the White Out, Sean Clifford has experienced almost everything college football has to offer.
Saturday marks the final time Clifford will put on the pads and run out onto Beaver Stadium in front of a raucous one hundred thousand-plus crowd.
Despite nearing the end of his collegiate career, Clifford hasn’t taken time to reflect on his six seasons in Happy Valley. The 24-year-old has just 60 minutes and a bowl game left in college football.
Saturday’s contest against Michigan State is the second time he’ll be a part of the Senior Day festivities. Clifford was honored pregame last season, but he decided to return for his sixth season.
When the Cincinnati, Ohio, native spoke with reporters on Tuesday, he did something unusual. He began his media availability with an opening statement thanking the media for its coverage, and then he moved on to the fans.
“Obviously, there's a lot of memories that have been formulated over the past four years of me playing, the past six years of me being there,” Clifford said. “It's definitely going to be not easy, but at the same time, I'm just excited to have another opportunity and my last opportunity at Beaver. It's going to be a blast. I'm really excited to do it with my teammates, and I just can't thank the fans enough for these years, and I'm just excited to finish it off on a high note on Saturday.”
The game against the Spartans marks the 24th and final home start in Clifford's career as the Nittany Lions will attempt to reach double-digit wins for the first time since 2019.
Clifford committed to the blue and white on July 13, 2015, just one day before his 17th birthday. Now the 24-year-old finds his name at the top of several program leaderboards. Clifford and fellow sixth-year teammate Jonathan Sutherland are the first four-time captains in Penn State history.
He ranks first in attempts (1,311), completions (798), passing yards (10,180), passing touchdowns (80) and completion percentage (60.9%) in program history.
Clifford has had a rollercoaster tenure with the blue and white. In 2019 he was named the starter taking over for Trace McSorley, and he led Penn State to an 11-2 season and capped off the year with a win in the Cotton Bowl over Memphis.
While all signs pointed to a promising 2020 campaign for the Nittany Lions, they went just 4-5, and Clifford was benched for Will Levis.
Last season, the blue and white jumped out to a 5-0 start, and it was the No. 4 team in the nation while Clifford was playing his best football. However, an injury during a 23-20 loss at No. 3 Iowa derailed his and Penn State’s promising year.
Clifford was even booed during pregame introductions and after the offense stalled on the opening three possessions of the White Out against Minnesota in October. He ended the game throwing for 295 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-17 blowout victory while earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.
The tensions of the crowd openly booing were heightened by having the future of the program just watching from the sidelines. Clifford even said himself the Nittany Lions quarterback room is extremely close, but whenever five-star true freshman Drew Allar stepped on the field, the erupted in cheers.
Over his six-year career, Clifford has learned to block out the noise and keep the focus on himself.
“Hey, it's the Man in the Arena,” PJ Mustipher said. “It's the Man in the Arena. Everybody can judge him. You can say what you want about him. But you ain't on that field, you know what I'm saying? You're not in that spotlight. You're not the quarterback. You're not who everybody's looking at, whether we're winning, whether we're losing. So people can say what they want to say, but they ain't out there.
“Not a lot of people got the guts to do what he's doing. Even when people aren't even cheering for him at his own home stadium. So, stuff like that, it's a testament to who he is. That's that warrior mentality he's got.
“He's always showing up. He's showing up each and every day. He's being a tremendous leader, and that's gonna pay dividends down the road for him because that's who he truly is. So I'm just proud to be his teammate. I've learned so much from him, and I think the whole locker room has, and he doesn't even know it. So what he's going through can help guys down the road. This program's gonna miss him. But I'm just proud to be his teammate as well.”
While Mustipher has been there for five of Clifford’s six seasons, Sutherland came to Happy Valley with him in 2017. Sutherland mentioned he saw Clifford approach the 2022 campaign “with a chip on his shoulder.”
The Nittany Lions sit just one win away from 10, and the veteran quarterback has played a key role in their success.
“Yeah, probably his perseverance, through good, through bad, through praise,” James Franklin said. “The biggest word for me with him is perseverance. That's probably the word that would describe him best throughout his Penn State experience. I mean, that as a positive. Some people may interpret that differently. I think that is one of the most important traits we can all have.”
Franklin also added he hopes when Clifford is announced on Senior Day on Saturday, the fans recognize his career appropriately.
While Clifford was honored a year ago in the blue and white’s Senior Day against Rutgers, this year is different because now it's the end.
This year he will do it again with his parents and his younger brother, Liam, who is in his second year at Penn State.
“I think it'll just be super cool to be able to really realize that it's over and to reflect on all the fun memories that I've had there with my teammates and my coaches and my friends and be able to really take it in,” Clifford said. “Understand the moment more than ever and really grab it and make the most of it. It'll be a lot of fun.”
Clifford was a four-star quarterback hailing from Ohio, and was the No. 196 player in the 2017 class.
He committed to the Nittany Lions as a 16-year-old, and now eight years later, at age 24, he was asked what advice he would give to his younger self.
“I think it would just be, ‘Be you,’” Clifford said. “I think that that's what's been the most helpful and most pivotal in my success so far has been because I haven't changed as a person. I think that obviously, I've developed new habits, new hobbies to be able to become better, a better player, a better person. But at the same time, the moral compass, the things that I believe in — hard work, dedication, sacrifice, all those things, those core values that Coach Franklin preaches and that I committed to when I was younger — that hasn't changed.
“For a young me, that's what I would say is develop yourself over these times, but never lose who you are because there's gonna be hardships, there's going to be trials and tribulations. But at the same time, it's the man in the mirror, it's the person that you look at every night that you need to be happy with. So for me, it's all about, ‘Can I lay my head on the pillow and know that I'm doing right and that I'm working the hardest I can?’ So that's what I would tell my younger self, just ‘be you.’”
Clifford never brought a Big Ten championship to Happy Valley like his predecessor Mcsorley did or beat his home state team, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
However, through the triumphs and failures, Clifford remained focused and carved a record-breaking career.
“I really didn't have expectations. I had goals, aspirations to accomplish things here,” Clifford said. “But realistically, I've always been here for the journey. I've always been here for the work and the family. And realistically, are there goals that I fell short of? Yeah. But I couldn't be more proud of what we've accomplished, the teams that I've been on, and the things that we've done over my past six years.
“From a program perspective, I think that we're in a really good place, and just to be a small spoke in that wheel is something that I can't thank the community enough. I think that it's just been so much fun, such a whirlwind, but also, at the same time, such a great experience to be able to be the starting quarterback and captain for these past four years. So again, I can't say thanks enough, and especially in the light of Thanksgiving being this week, I'm just a super thankful individual right now.”
Alex Rocco is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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