Penn State could do a lot worse than a healthy Sean Clifford for its starting quarterback.

No, he won’t outperform Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, and probably not Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa or Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell either. Still, he’s more likely to be a top-5 QB in the Big Ten than a bottom-5 one.

So far at Penn State, he hasn’t been able to overcome shoddy line play and hasn’t shown much flair for the dramatic. But he has taken flawed teams as high as No. 4 last year and No. 5 in 2019. He’s had winning streaks of 8 and 9 games. He’s well on his way to setting a bunch of all-time school records.

PSU career passing yards leaders
Trace McSorley (2015-18) … 9,899
Christian Hackenberg (2013-15) … 8,457
Sean Clifford (2018-2022) … 7,839

He’s no slouch by any means, and probably would be looked upon much differently had not Iowa’s Jack Campbell literally and figuratively taken his legs out from under him in the Nittany Lions’ 6th game last fall.

Had he not been knocked out of that Oct. 9 contest at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Penn State wins that game and beats Illinois 2 weeks later, rather than falling 20-18 in 9 overtimes. From there, who knows what an extremely confident and probably No. 2-ranked Lions team might have done.

“I always say this: If it weren’t for injuries, we would have been in the College Football Playoff last year,” Jahan Dotson, Clifford’s top receiver last year, said recently. “I truly believe that. And I’ll stand on that forever.”

What does Clifford have left for an encore? Can the 24-year-old team captain be that pre-injury guy again, the guy who went 28-of-32 vs. Auburn and threw for 401 yards against Villanova?

PSU career TD pass leaders
McSorley … 77
Clifford … 62
Hackenberg … 48

Clifford can’t match Trace McSorley in athletic or improvisational skills, but he does match his predecessor in grit. At his hard-nosed best, pre-injury last year, Clifford was on a roll: 118-of-178 (66.3%), 1,482 yards (247 per game despite not playing the 2nd half vs. Iowa), 11 TDs, 5 INTs, 173 rushing yards on 44 attempts (3.9 per carry).

Post-injury, his run game vanished and his accuracy dipped. But he still posted 3 300-yard passing games while throwing only 1 interception over the 2nd half of the regular season.

For a fair gauge of his finish to 2021, let’s throw out the Illinois game (he winced through it with the lingering effects from Campbell’s hit), his brief appearance vs. Rutgers (he exited with flu symptoms after going 2-for-8 for 23 yards) and the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas (Dotson and 3 offensive linemen opted out). In the 4 games vs. Ohio State, Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State, Clifford went 108-of-176 (61.4%) for 1,242 yards (310.5 per game) with 8 TDs and 1 INT. That doesn’t suck.

Given those stats, how does Penn State lose 3 of those 4? Well, the deteriorating line and running game gave Clifford no help, and he no longer could bail them out with his legs. In those game, he rushed 36 times for minus-32 yards, and many of those “attempts” were actually sacks. Before Week 4 of 2021 vs. Villanova, Clifford had never rushed for negative yards in a game through 23 starts.

PSU career completion percentage leaders (200+ attempts)
Clifford … 60.4%
Daryll Clark (2006-09) … 60.2%
McSorley … 59.3%

All that said, no one thinks of Clifford as an all-time great QB at Penn State. He could become the program’s first 10,000-yard passer and still not make most top 10 lists of best-ever Nittany Lions at the position. He simply hasn’t won enough (21-12 as starter), and he’s been the face of the franchise during a 2-year run of .500 football. On top of that, he’s produced zero fourth-quarter comebacks and only a few key crunch-time plays. In most of his biggest wins, Penn State has been holding on for dear life to tenuous leads down the stretch.

If he is to be remembered for more than the longevity boosted by 2020’s bonus year of eligibility, the 4th-year starter will need to fill in those gaps on his resume. The problem is that the line remains suspect, as head coach James Franklin conceded at last week’s Big Ten Media Days.

“I’m not going to [predict progress] this year,” he said. “I’m going to let them prove that to you on the field. But I’m very, very pleased with that unit and the depth that we have created.”

The offense is otherwise loaded. Parker Washington and transfer Mitchell Tinsley lead a deep group of receivers, and Franklin loves his tight ends, saying he’d put that room up against any in the country. The running back room looks deeper than it has been in several years — led by Keyvone Lee and 5-star freshman Nicholas Singleton — and could play a greater role in the passing game this year while also boosting the running attack.

“I feel really good on the offensive side of the ball,” Franklin told the assembled media in Indianapolis.

Clifford’s last stand

In his 6th year since trekking from Cincinnati to State College, Clifford appears calm, cool and confident in the public spotlight. Like fellow captain and Media Days representative PJ Mustipher, he’s looking to bolster his NFL resume with a nothing-to-lose bonus season of college football.

It’s one more chance to silence the critics and reward the true blue admirers. Maybe he can make some magic happen, produce a couple signature moments, turn last year’s 4 narrowest losses (combined 12 points) into victories. Do that, and Penn State suddenly is chasing double-digit wins and a top 10 final ranking.

That’s not likely, but it’s not an extreme longshot, either. Clifford may yet find what it takes to make that happen. He’s in range to tie or pass McSorley as the program’s all-time winner at quarterback.

Most wins by a PSU starting QB
McSorley … 31
Todd Blackledge (1980-82) … 29
Tony Sacca (1988-91) … 29
(Clifford has 21)

“We’re as excited as we’ve ever been,” the 6-2, 212-pound redhead said during one of his Media Day interviews. “We know what we can do. We know what we need to prove. And we’re ready for it.”

Possible legacies

On the downside, the Lions could easily have another middling season. The schedule is tough, with a challenging road game right out of the gate against Purdue and another in Week 3 when the squad plays Auburn in Jordan Hare Stadium for the first time. And the B1G East isn’t getting any easier.

If Penn State struggles to stay above .500 for a third straight season, Clifford will be remembered as the guy who got in the way, the guy who forced the transfers of potentially better starters Tommy Stevens and Will Levis, then blocked 5-star recruit Drew Allar’s path by sticking around for an extra year.

Critics will say he distracted himself this past offseason running his upstart NIL agency, flirting with union organizers and taking a leading role in discussions with Penn State and B1G officials regarding revenue sharing, player rights and other issues as the sport goes through massive changes to its governing structure.

But even in a worst-case scenario, Clifford does not deserve to be vilified. He does not deserve the social media scorn some of the less decent and dignified fans want to heap upon him.

He hasn’t matched McSorley’s game, mainly because he doesn’t have the skillset to do so. But he has matched McSorley in grit, toughness, classiness and leadership. And given the differences in supporting casts and offensive coordinators, what Clifford has done so far is actually kind of amazing.

Best TD:INT ratios by PSU QBs (15+ TDs)
McSorley … 77/25 … 3.08:1
Clark … 43/16 … 2.69:1
Clifford … 62/24 … 2.58:1

So, root for Sean Clifford, a good guy who has persevered through some trying times not of his making. Hope that finally having a 2nd year under the same OC, Mike Yurcich, unlocks some mental doors. Be thankful that he’s mentoring Allar and the other promising freshmen in the QB room. Know that he’s a team-first guy, well respected in the locker room. Those things matter.

“It’s all about leadership and being able to help out other players,” he said at Media Days. “Coming in, being the same guy every single day. Making an impact. Making sure if a guy wants to watch film, I’m available to watch film. If a guy wants to do extra reps, I’m available to do extra reps. Realistically, it’s about being the same guy every day and leading in a great way.”

Maybe the best is yet to come. Clifford deserves that as much as you, the Penn State fan, does. He’s paid his dues.