Penn State football: Evolving offense takes some weight off Sean Clifford's shoulders. That's a good thing.
It’s no longer Sean Clifford or bust for the Penn State offense, and that’s a good thing after another uneven effort from the 6th-year senior.
The 24-year-old 4th-year starter staked the Lions to a 14-0 lead against visiting Central Michigan on Saturday, then managed the offense just well enough to let his teammates take care of business.
With the defense and special teams dominating the second half and freshman running back Kaytron Allen breaking out for his first 100-yard rushing game, heroics from Clifford weren’t needed to finish off the Chippewas 33-14.
Penn State’s offensive philosophy clearly is evolving. Head coach James Franklin has never committed to the running game, in word or in deed, as much as he has through his team’s 4-0 start this year.
The results jump off the stat sheet.
After a 17-game stretch without a 100-yard back, Penn State has had one for 3 straight games. Allen made it happen this time, after fellow true freshman Nick Singleton garnered national attention in the previous 2 games. CMU held the Lions to 19 yards rushing before Allen carried 3 times 33 yards and a touchdown to give his team a 21-14 halftime lead.
It was shades of the Villanova game from Week 4 a year ago, when the Wildcats held the Lions to 18 first-half rushing yards and 80 for the game. Clifford had to save the day with a 401-yard passing effort. This time, though, Penn State kept pounding with Allen, who powered his way to 5 runs of 10+ yards with a long of 37. He finished with 111 yards on 13 carries.
Singleton, bottled up most of the afternoon, broke off a 21-yard jaunt after halftime to finish with 42 yards on a season-high 12 carries. The Lions racked up 147 rushing yards over the game’s final 34 minutes, a testament to sticking with the game plan.
“We have 2 young backs who are really doing some good things to build on,” Franklin said after the game.
Staying committed to the run game and those youngsters, Penn State finished with 166 yards on 5.2 per carry. It could have been even better had not a holding call on RG Sal Wormley nullified a 35-yard Allen run. All in all, though, the line continues to slowly progress, and looks significantly better than last year’s unit that allowed a B1G-worst 34 sacks and limited the ground game to 3.2 yards per carry.
Clifford hasn’t been sacked over the past 2 games, and the o-line would be perfect in that regard if not for a takedown of backup Drew Allar late in Saturday’s game. Meanwhile, the team is averaging 5.4 yards per rush.
Receivers’ reduced roles
Penn State hasn’t had a 100-yard receiver nor a 300-yard passer this year, and for the past 5 games in you count last year’s Outback Bowl.
Through 4 games, Parker Washington has 7 fewer catches and 89 fewer yards than through the same stretch last year. Mitchell Tinsley is 10 catches and 153 yards behind Jahan Dotson’s pace. KeAndre Lambert-Smith trails his 2021 self by 2 catches and 95 yards.
Last year, the Lions had 3 100-yard receiving games by this point, 2 by Dotson and 1 by Washington.
On the flip side, tight end Brenton Strange is thriving as Penn State embraces more power and less finesse. He has 211 yards and 3 TDs — tying his total from all of 2021 — on 14 receptions. That’s 8 catches and 121 yards better than his 4-game start to last year.
For erratic Clifford, less is more
For the first 2+ drives, Clifford masterfully hit open receivers in stride, going 8-for-8 for 103 yards and 2 TDs. Then, he misfired on his next 3, 7 of his next 9 and 8 of 12.
Turnovers forced by the defense and special teams saved Penn State, which cashed in with 15-yard and 7-yard TD drives.
Clifford couldn’t connect on deep balls to take the top off CMU’s box-crowding defense. His longest pass play went for 29 yards to Tinsley. Twice, he ignored or never saw wide-open backs in the left flat, something he did once against Auburn as well.
What is saving him and the Lions is that he hasn’t thrown a pick since the horrendous one against Purdue that almost cost the team its season-opening road victory.
The Lions won the turnover battle 4-0 for a second straight week. As long as that keeps happening, they can muddle through Clifford’s cold spells.
The veteran quarterback doesn’t need to carry the team this year. He’s thrown for 268 fewer yards through 4 games, averaging 222.5 per game. He’s also running less, with 8 fewer carries (23) and 25 fewer yards (54) than a year ago.
The backup is ready
Allar went 2-for-5 for 20 yards when he finally got into the game in the fourth quarter. Clifford’s cold spell kept him from entering sooner and getting more time. But the 6-5, 240-pound freshman again zipped the ball with accuracy, even though the numbers don’t show it.
Couple of items on this play…
1) Freshman QBs don’t usually process this crisply
2) Drew Allar can gyrate the piglet
— Brad Maendler (@BradMaendler) September 24, 2022
Allar has played in all 4 games, and unlike last year’s backup, Ta’Quan Roberson, Penn State fans would welcome rather than dread his entry in a key situation. The Lions will be in good hands, perhaps even better hands, should the rookie assume the starting role from the veteran.
Sean Clifford record watch
Clifford will make his 38th start for the Lions on Saturday when Northwestern visits Beaver Stadium. The Wildcats (1-3) are one of Pat Fitzgerald’s worst squads of recent vintage, so Clifford seems a lock to improve to 26-12 as a starter, which would leave him 5 wins from tying Trace McSorley as Penn State’s all-time winningest QB.
With 8 TD throws this season, Clifford has moved withing 7 of tying McSorley’s mark of 77. As for passing yards, Clifford needs 1,171 to reach 9,900, which would top McSorley’s mark. As his current pace this season, he’ll need 6 more games to reach that mark and might be cutting it close to become the school’s first 10K quarterback.
He’s still on pace (60.8% for his career) to finish as Penn State’s most accurate quarterback, a dumbfounding stat if ever there was one.
The final stretch drive
Barring something really bizarre happening next weekend, Clifford will have his 3rd 5-0 start in 4 years, and likely have his team among the AP top 10 again.
Having a better finish this time around won’t be easy, given that Ohio State and Michigan are currently top 5 teams with more highly regarded quarterbacks. Clifford will need to find the best version of himself going forward just to delay Allar’s first start until 2023.
He’ll need Singleton, Allen and the revamped offense to carry him forward. If that happens, everyone looks good. Even Penn State’s enigmatic old man under center.