Sean Clifford deserves better.

He’s adapted, persevered and progressed through incredibly trying times for the Penn State football program. Because he plays quarterback, he’s the face of the program’s consecutive seasons of 5+ losses. But he is more victim of the mess than cause.

The Nittany Lions’ 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl provides the latest case in point.

No, the veteran QB did not play great. He threw 2 interceptions and overthrew Brenton Strange for what should have been a first-half touchdown.

But he was often running for his life, throwing off his back foot by necessity and trying to be the fix-all for an offensive scheme that just doesn’t work. Head coach James Franklin and OC Mike Yurcich put him in impossible situations. He IS NOT the team’s best running back, yet he led the team with 12 carries for 46 yards, somehow only taking a sack once despite pressure on almost every play. Kevone Lee averaged 8.8 yards per carry, but got only 4. Noah Cain averaged 5.6, but got only 5 attempts.

Meanwhile, Clifford took off on designed and improvised runs time and again, hitting holes only to get blown up by Arkansas’ ferocious linebackers.

At this point, I’m not sure why Clifford wants to return for a super senior season to take more of this abuse. He must really love football, and Penn State too.

As college football devolves into something unrecognizable to many longtime fans, Clifford provides an old-school tie to the best of what the sport at least used to pretend to be about.

Is there more of a team-first guy anywhere out there?

In a sense, he’s been taking one for the team for these past 2 seasons. While the team’s bigger stars opt out of bowl games or — in the case of all-world LB Micah Parsons in 2020 — whole seasons, Clifford keeps coming back, limping, hobbling, holding his shoulder.

On the offensive side of the ball, he’s shown more grit than any lineman or running back these past 2 seasons.

And yet, some significant segment of the fan base would prefer he not keep coming back, that he move on rather than return in 2022 for a 6th year with the program. With 5-star recruit Drew Allar set to arrive on campus this month, they’d prefer Clifford just get out of the way already.

Through it all, I’ve never once heard Clifford complain, never saw him throw a teammate under the bus. Whatever grit there is to the offense, the 23-year-old out of Cincinnati brings it. Off the field, he’s been nothing but a class act in the community.

Regardless of his limitations as a quarterback, he should be celebrated rather than scorned. While others opted out and left early, Clifford has kept working through 4 offensive coordinators, including 3 in as many seasons since he took the starting job in 2019.

After every Dallas Cowboys game, various PSU fans will post Parsons’ latest exploits on social media and express how Penn State proud they are that he spent a couple of seasons as a Nittany Lion. Nothing wrong with that. Franklin needs as many Parsons-like players as he can get. And no one can fault the superstar athlete out of Harrisburg for protecting his family’s future during the pandemic-plagued 2020 season.

But Parsons’ absence had at least as much impact on the 4-5 nightmare that was last season as Clifford’s dreadfully poor play to start that campaign. Line coach Phil Trautwein and then-OC Kirk Ciarrocca are as culpable as Clifford for that misadventure, too.

Has he missed some open receivers this season? Of course he has, just like every other QB at every other program. But his final numbers — 3,107 yards on 60.9 percent passing with 21 TDs and 8 interceptions — would be celebrated if Penn State had produced an 11-win season ala Michigan and Michigan State. It might be trite to say in retrospect, but Penn State easily could have had such a season. And Clifford’s only fault in the downfall was getting hurt vs. Iowa and trying to play through the injury a couple weeks later against Illinois.

The rest of the Lions’ downward spiral must be laid at the feet of:

  • A line that couldn’t run-block and got worse at protecting Clifford as the season wore on.
  • Young tight ends that, despite flashes, didn’t progress well enough in blocking or receiving.
  • The team’s propensity under Franklin to come out flat the next time out after a tough loss.
  • Poor strategy, particularly in not passing more against Michigan State’s nation-worst pass defense in the regular-season finale.

Bottom line: Clifford may not be the ultimate solution, but neither is he the problem. Unless he leads Penn State to a B1G East title next season, he won’t be celebrated like his predecessor, Trace McSorley. But maybe he should be. The two are not so different. Both dragged themselves onto the field through aches and pains to make almost every start over 3 years. Both were willing to put their head down and run to help an offense that needed that element to succeed.

McSorley’s better numbers — more than 3,500 passing yards in consecutive seasons — came when he had great players around him. In his final year, when the offensive talent thinned, he dropped off to 2,530 yards on 52.3 percent passing, with an 18-7 TD-INT ratio. The 2 QBs’ career numbers match up fairly evenly, the main difference being that Clifford didn’t run the ball effectively between taking the big hit that knocked him out of the Iowa game and Saturday’s performance.

Without his school-record 31 wins as a starter, McSorley wouldn’t rate as an obviously better QB than Clifford. Here are their career numbers:

  • McSorley (46 games, 40 starts): 9,899 yards on 59.3% passing, 77 TDs, 25 INTs, 144.5 QB rating; 1,697 rushing yards on 3.6 per carry, 30 TDs
  • Clifford (38 games, 33 starts): 7,839 yards on 60.4% passing, 62 TDs, 24 INTs, 143.1 QB rating before Saturday; 896 rushing yards on 2.8 per carry, 10 TDs

With a 21-12 record as a starter, Clifford seems destined to be the program’s first 10,000-yard career passer. If things go really well next season, he could even match or top McSorley’s 31 wins. More likely, given the personnel losses, Clifford will gut out another challenging season while mentoring Allar.

And then, a year or 2 later, should Allar fulfill his promise and finally get the Lions to the Playoff, Clifford probably won’t get much credit for helping his fellow Ohioan along.

In another scenario, Clifford might have to turn over the reins to Allar during the season in 2022. My guess is, he’d handle even that with class, giving Penn State the most experienced backup QB in college football.

Penn State, and college football in general, needs to celebrate that type of guy — now more than ever.