Though Sean Clifford and Tanner Morgan have been in the Big Ten since the dawn of time — or at least 2017 — they’ve matched up on the field only once.

My gosh, were things different then.

The Penn State quarterback and his Minnesota counterpart, who will meet again Saturday night assuming both are healthy enough, have been through a lot since then. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Back then, a Nov. 9 matchup in 2019, they were just coming of age as men and as B1G starting quarterbacks. Neither could have known then that they were at the zeniths of their college careers. But they were. They met as leaders of undefeated teams that day in Minneapolis. Neither would sniff 8-0 again.

This time, they’ll lead winning but nonetheless reeling teams into Beaver Stadium for a 7:30 tilt that will be Penn State’s White Out game. The winner will earn a last-gasp chance to gain a higher high than 2019. The loser will face increasing howls from his team’s fan base to get off the field and out of the way of younger quarterback options.

At midweek, fans don’t even know if either will play. As you can see from the above tweets, some fans don’t want them to.

Clifford left Saturday’s loss at Michigan after taking a big blow to his right shoulder while trying to run along the sideline for a first down. He came up short and in pain.

Morgan left on a stretcher after taking a blow to his helmeted head.

Both coaches, Penn State’s James Franklin and Minnesota’s PJ Fleck, refuse to provide anything other than vague updates. Morgan’s diagnosis gets no more specific than “upper-body injury.” But both quarterbacks have a history of playing through pain.

Morgan has made 45 straight starts since taking the job midway through 2018. Clifford has started 39 of 41 games since the start of 2019, and played in 1 of the other 2.

Round 1: Minnesota 31, Penn State 26

Clifford won his first 8 career starts as Penn State climbed from a preseason No. 15 ranking to No. 5. With a couple great games and some average ones, he got the Lions past some clearly weaker foes but also Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. Entering the game, he had thrown 22 career TD passes vs. just 3 interceptions.

But in this one, he threw 3 picks and only 1 TD pass, almost single-handedly losing the game. He nearly bailed himself out, rallying the Lions before his final interception with 1 minute remaining.

Morgan threw for 339 yards, 1 less than Clifford. But unlike Clifford (23-of-43), he did so on 18-of-20 passing with no turnovers — an uber-efficient effort that was becoming his trademark at the time. Earlier in the season, he had gone 21-of-22 for 396 yards and 4 TDs against Purdue.

At that point, Morgan was 13-2 as the Golden Gophers’ starter and had thrown for 30 TDs and 8 picks in those 15 games.

Minnesota climbed to No. 7 with the win, but then lost to Iowa and Wisconsin over the next 3 games. Morgan averaged 332 passing yards in the losses, with 3 TDs and just 1 pick.

The season ended with both teams at 11-2 and in the top 10 after bowl wins.

Things were looking up for the sophomore quarterbacks and their programs.

The world goes crazy

The novel coronavirus would shake up the world a few months later.

Kirk Ciarrocca, Minnesota’s offensive coordinator and QB guru, would jump ship to Penn State to replace outgoing Ricky Rahne.

The 2020 season would sputter through fits and starts and uncertainly, turning the B1G upside down for everyone except Ohio State. Both Penn State and Minnesota would finish a game below .500.

The gradual return to normalcy would leave Clifford and Morgan as old guys who didn’t seem to fit the new college QB mold. Their stats trended in the wrong direction. They got dinged up with bumps and bruises.

Ciarrocca’s move to the Eastern Time Zone turned out to be a lose-lose-lose situation, and he stayed only 1 year in State College.

Clifford post-2019

The team fell apart around Clifford in 2020, as its top 2 backs went down by Game 1 and Micah Parsons opted out of the Covid season altogether. Clifford, plagued by turnovers, lost the starting gig for 1 game, then was part of an odd QB rotation with Will Levis.

In 2021, he got the Lions to 5-0 despite playing behind an awful offensive line, with big games against Auburn and Villanova. Passing and running effectively for new OC Mike Yurcich, he helped the Lions build a 17-3 lead at Iowa. But he also threw 2 picks in less than 2 quarters before leaving with an injury. Penn State lost that game and then 5 of the season’s final 7. With sore ribs or whatever he had, Clifford didn’t run much the rest of the way. He posted a career-best 3,107 yards with 21 TDs and 8 INTs, but the offense had its worst points output since 2015.

This year, now 24-year-old Clifford again got PSU to 5-0, but with bouts of erratic play while taking a backseat to 2 freshman running backs and the ground game. Last Saturday, neither those backs nor Clifford could do anything against unbeaten Michigan, as the then-No. 10 Lions got exposed as frauds, 41-17.

Morgan post-2019

Superstar receivers Tyler Johnson (after 2019) and Rashod Bateman (after 2020) left in successive years, and Minnesota became an extremely run-heavy attack under new coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. Morgan hasn’t been the same. In good stretches, he protects the ball and hits a high percentage of passes. But since his 30-TD, 7-INT season in 2019, he has thrown for 24 TDs with 19 INTs.

This year, he lost top receiver Chris Autman-Bell early on, yet remained blazing hot through Minnesota’s 4-0 start. He was averaging 221.5 yards per game while completing better than 77% of his passes with 7 TDs and 1 INT.

But then he threw 3 picks in a 20-10 loss to Purdue as power back Mohamed Ibrahim sat out with an injury. Last week against Illinois’ stout defense, he was 4-of-12 for 21 yards and an INT before leaving in the 4th quarter with his apparent head/neck injury.

Why are they still doing this?

They love the game, and probably entertain thoughts of continuing to play it, despite how unlikely that may seem from the outside. That’s what makes all the abuse on and off the field worth it.

Their 2017 recruiting classmate, Kenny Pickett, just recently had his first NFL start after a long college career at Pitt. Pickett was a 3-star recruit ranked the 48th best QB in the country that year. So why wouldn’t Clifford, a 4-star ranked 13th coming out of high school, think his breakthrough is just a season or the next game away. Or even Morgan, a 3-star who was 66th. Hendon Hooker was 24th when he signed on with Virginia Tech that year. Now he’s a Heisman candidate for unbeaten Tennessee. Anything can happen if you just keep plugging away.

Climbing the career charts

Clifford has had winning streaks of 8, 9 and 5 games, accounting for 22 of the wins in his 26-13 record as Penn State’s starter. He’s chasing predecessor Trace McSorley’s mark of 31 wins. He’s also chasing McSorley in career passing yards (9,899-8,989) and TD throws (77-71).

Morgan is 31-14 as a starter, already Minnesota’s all-time winner. Like Clifford, he is also No. 2 in his school’s history in passing yards and TDs. He trails Adam Weber (2007-10) in yards (10,917-9,236) and TDs (72-63).

If they don’t play Saturday

If Clifford can’t go Saturday, 5-star freshman Drew Allar will likely start for the first time. That would create a huge buzz in Beaver Stadium and give the ABC broadcast team something to hype.

Minnesota’s other options are junior Cole Kramer and 4-star 2021 recruit Athan Kaliakmanus, a redshirt freshman who — like Allar — has played backup snaps in 5 games this season.

“Cole’s got a lot more experience, but when you look at Athan, he’s really talented,” Fleck said Tuesday. “It’s just what will he be able to process … go out there and execute? Those are the decisions we’ll make as we keep going forward. But I’ll have confidence in whoever is out there.”

If they do play Saturday

If they play, Clifford might face the bigger challenge. Minnesota ranks 4th in the country in scoring defense and 6th in total defense. Penn State ranks 22nd and 68th, though it was much higher in both before getting ripped by Michigan. The Gophers also have the better offensive line.

It’s possible that the Michigan game is skewing perceptions and the stats, and that Penn State deserves to be the 5.5-point favorite that it is.

Either way, the quarterbacks involved will face a “prove it” duel. They didn’t seem destined for this type of matchup when they previously squared off. But they’re wiser and more worldly now, with more hair on their faces and a few more pounds on their frames.

They’ve grown up, separately, but sort of together, too. Their high schools were less than 25 miles apart — Clifford’s in the Cincinnati area, Morgan’s in northern Kentucky.

If Clifford leads Penn State (5-1, 2-1 B1G East) to victory, he’ll set himself up for one more shot at mighty Ohio State, which he’s never beaten in 3 tries. That’s on the schedule for the following week, back at Beaver Stadium.

If Morgan leads Minnesota (4-2, 1-2 B1G West) to victory, the Gophers would still be alive in the Big Ten’s jumbled West Division.

At this time, anything could still happen for either player or his team. It’s a must-win game, though the winner will remain a longshot to do anything truly special this season. Not that Clifford nor Morgan will think that way.


History should treat Clifford and Morgan better than they’re being treated right now.

Fans can be fickle, and some downright awful. I’m sure I’ve been the former; I’ve tried very hard not to be the latter. These are good young men and good teammates. They’ve represented their programs with honor.

They don’t have the skills of a CJ Stroud nor the wide-open system Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell — another class of 2017 recruit who had to walk on to find his college home — gets to play in while leading Jeff Brohm’s pass-happy attack. Their teams’ schemes have been tweaked repeatedly through various OCs, with Morgan getting Ciarrocca back this year.

They’ve both played the roles of team captain, spokesman and mentor. They’ve grown thick skin and learned to handle the spotlight. They’ve taken hard knocks on and off the field. They’ve persevered.

Because they’ve been granted an extra year of eligibility in the wake of the abbreviated 2020 season, it does seem like they’ve been in college forever. Some followers will want to put asterisks in the respective record books.

The career numbers are inflated, no doubt. Stroud likely will be over 9,000 yards by the time he finishes this, his second season as Ohio State’s starter. But Clifford and Morgan have not been afforded the luxuries, in terms of coaching and surrounding talent, that Stroud has enjoyed.

In the end, after some time has passed, they should be remembered as the gritty warriors they’ve been for lo these many years. If you’re a fan in Beaver Stadium on Saturday night, especially if you’ve been less than kind recently, you might think about delivering a standing ovation for both of them.