Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Jan. 2—TAMPA, Fla. — Sean Clifford’s career at Penn State was capsulized during one series Saturday in the Outback Bowl.

Clifford threw a pretty downfield pass to Malick Meiga, who dropped the football behind the Arkansas defense.

He showed his mettle by eluding Arkansas defenders, avoiding sacks and picking up three first downs with scrambles to keep the drive alive. He moved in the pocket and found Parker Washington for a 13-yard gain, raising the hopes of Penn State fans for a comeback.

Then on first-and-goal from the 10, Clifford sidestepped a defender and rushed a throw into double coverage to tight end Theo Johnson in the back corner of the end zone. It was intercepted by the Razorbacks safety Joe Foucha.

Game, set and match for Arkansas, which won 24-10.

“When I saw him staring down the receiver,” Foucha said, “I just stayed back and went for the ball because I knew it was coming.”

Clifford finished his fifth season at Penn State on Saturday. He has three years of starting experience, so he should have more poise than that. He should have made a better decision.

“I thought he played gutsy,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “I thought he battled. He made some plays, but there also were some plays I know he would like to have back.”

All true, and therein lies the conundrum with Clifford.

He’s a strong leader, a two-time captain. He’s fiery. He’s ultra-competitive. He’s smart.

And he’s still only an average Big Ten quarterback.

Which is why so many Penn State fans recoiled when Clifford announced he would return to the Nittany Lions for a sixth year in 2022. They’d rather see Franklin go with Christian Veilleux or one of the two highly regarded incoming freshmen, Drew Allar or Beau Pribula, next season.

Clifford can be great as he was in a 28-20 victory over Auburn in September when he completed 28-of-32 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

He also can be lousy like he was against Arkansas, going 14-for-32 for 195 yards. While receivers dropped a few passes, he overthrew a wide-open Johnson for what would have been an easy touchdown in the second quarter. He missed Cam Sullivan-Brown a few snaps before his second pick.

His first interception came in the first quarter. Brenton Strange, another Penn State tight end, was behind a defensive back, but Clifford underthrew the pass and it was intercepted.

Those were only the second and third interceptions that Clifford threw in the last seven games. He had nine touchdown passes and one interception while playing with an unspecified injury in the second half of the regular season, which is certainly admirable.

But with All-Big Ten receiver Jahan Dotson opting out of the Outback Bowl, a veteran quarterback like Clifford needed to step up his game and he didn’t.

Now Franklin has a dilemma on his hands as he prepares for spring practice. What to do with the quarterback position?

Allar and Pribula will enroll at Penn State in less than 10 days. Veilleux has acquitted himself well in his only two games, a win over Rutgers and Saturday after Clifford left the field in the fourth quarter for what Franklin termed “medical” reasons.

For the first time in two years, the Lions have depth at quarterback. If Franklin is true to his philosophy of having open competition at every position, then he will give the younger guys their shot in the spring.

If one of them plays well enough to unseat Clifford, that would be a good thing. But it’s not very likely.

Maybe Clifford will make a quantum leap in his second season with Mike Yurcich as his position coach and offensive coordinator. We’ll see.

Franklin and Penn State need to have a strong year in 2022 to quiet his critics after he agreed to a 10-year, $75 million contract. The Lions are 11-11 the last two seasons, which is unacceptable for a program that wants to be elite.

As it always is in football, their success has depended and will depend largely on the quarterback position.

“He’s a competitive son of a gun,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said about Clifford.

And one whose inconsistency is maddening.