A cloud of doubt was shadowing State College during the spring. Trace McSorley’s locker was cleaned out, preparing for his venture to the NFL after an illustrious career at Penn State. Tommy Stevens opted to leave the program, knowing James Franklin wouldn’t give him an answer on his status heading into the 2019 season.
Sean Clifford was next in line. The redshirt sophomore who had thrown a whopping seven career passes was knighted the quarterback of the Nittany Lions offense. There might’ve been some doubt outside the Penn State locker room, but Clifford’s teammates knew the right guy was about to be running the offense.
“After Tommy left, we were all in a team meeting,’’ linebacker Micah Parsons told PennLive.com during the spring. “(Clifford) stood up and all he said (was), ‘There will be no drop-off in the QB position’.
“Him doing (that), it was almost like a movie of that leader that just rose to the occasion. … He promised the team in front of everybody. Everybody just rallied to him.”
It’s one thing for Clifford to speak the words and earn the trust and confidence from his teammates. Doing it is an entirely different challenge.
Five games in, he’s made good on that promise.
Clifford has been the leader of an offense that currently averages 47 points per game, leads the B1G in passing and is off to a perfect 5-0 start. He didn’t throw an interception until the fourth game of this season — more of an ode to an incredible play by Maryland’s Nick Cross than a knock on Clifford’s decision making.
As good as Clifford has been with his arm, he’s been surprisingly active in Penn State’s ground game. He’s already totaled 200 yards through the first five games, and has looked McSorley-esque with his ability to pick up chunks of yardage at a time.
To put it simply, Clifford has delivered on his word that Penn State wouldn’t experience a drop-off at the quarterback position. If the eye test wasn’t enough, his numbers to some pretty loud talking.
Clifford hasn’t just replicated McSorley’s success as a first-time starter, he’s off to a statistically better start through five games in every category. Granted, Penn State’s schedule was a little tougher to open the 2016 season than this year, but the stats are no less significant:
|First 5 starts (per game)||Trace McSorley||Sean Clifford|
The first five games of Clifford’s career as a starter have allowed him to acclimate nicely to his new role. He’s aced his first test and made it look pretty easy. It’s not been surprising to James Franklin, who says Clifford is “wired” to be successful.
“I think he’s been groomed for this,” Franklin said. “I take a lot of pride that we’ve developed our quarterbacks in house. I love his approach, he’s been aggressive since the day he stepped on campus from a football perspective.”
Safe to say that mindset has translated pretty well to the field so far this season.
But the next test of Clifford’s career is knocking on his door, starting this weekend with a trip to Iowa to take on the 17th ranked Hawkeyes under the lights at Kinnick Stadium. It’s the first big-time road experience for the redshirt sophomore.
No, that “Black Out” at Maryland doesn’t count. There were plenty of white shirts in College Park that day.
Clifford will have plenty of questions to answer on Saturday. How will he handle the pressure from future NFL defensive end A.J. Epenesa? Will he be effected by the hostile environment creates? What will he decision making be like when he faces the best secondary Penn State has seen all season?
This weekend is just the start. After the trip to Iowa, Penn State returns home to face No. 16 Michigan then has back-to-back road trips to Michigan State and Minnesota (with an off week sandwiched in between). On Nov. 23, the Nittany Lions head to Columbus to take on No. 4 Ohio State.
It’s a tough seven-game stretch for any quarterback, let alone a first-year starter. We’ll find out just how well groomed Clifford was for the starting job over the course of the next eight weeks.
But it would be wrong to not acknowledge what Clifford has accomplished through his first five games as Penn State’s starter. The kid nobody knew much about in the offseason has looked like one of the three best quarterbacks in the B1G, leading one of the most potent offenses in the country.
So far, Clifford has backed up his promise with his play. There’s been no drop-off at the quarterback position.
If anything, you could argue there’s been an improvement. And that’s really saying something.