Today’s subject of 99 Things is a player who feels as if he has been playing college football for a decade. Sean Clifford is the starting quarterback for Penn State and has been the starter since the beginning of the 2019 season. Clifford redshirted the 2017 season and was the primary backup for Trace McSorely during the 2018 season. Clifford’s career has been full of up and down moments. He helped Penn State win the Cotton Bowl in 2019 but was also the quarterback when the Nittany Lions started the 2020 with an 0-5 record.
Clifford’s first season starting saw Penn State finish with an 11-2 record which included wins over Iowa, Michigan, Pitt and Memphis. The Nittany Lions finished 9th in the AP Poll. Clifford had a good but not great season completing just 59% of his passes. He did throw 23 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. He also finished third on the team in rushing yards with 405 yards and five touchdowns. Penn State was primed for another run at a New Year’s Six game heading into 2020 but the Nittany Lions faltered out the gate. A loss to Indiana in overtime to start the season set them back.
The 2020 season saw the Nittany Lions bounce between Clifford and Will Levis. Clifford would be benched in the fourth game of the season against Nebraska after falling behind 24-3. Clifford was 5 for 8 for 37 yards and one interception against the Cornhuskers. Clifford would reestablish himself as the starter before the end of the season helping the Nittany Lions win their final four games of the season to finish 4-5. Levis announced his decision to transfer out of the program following the 2020 season which allowed Clifford to be the starter for the 2021 season.
The 2021 season for Clifford was plagued with injuries. He suffered an injury against Iowa and would not return to the game. Clifford would return two weeks later to start against Illinois in the infamous nine overtime game. The Nittany Lions would finish the 2021 season losing six of their last eight games to finish 7-6. He was hardly the reason Penn State lost as many games as they did but the fault from a fan’s perspective tends to come at the quarterback.
In order for Penn State to have success in 2022 Clifford will need to return to 2019 form. His top target is likely to be Parker Washington who had a breakout campaign in 2021. Washington may not be as talented as Jahan Dotson but he is a reliable receiver who can make plays in space. KeAndre Lambert-Smith also returns after averaging more than 15 yards per catch. The duo of Washington and Lambert-Smith gives Clifford a reliable and experienced pair of receivers.
One tendency I noticed while reviewing Clifford was related to his accuracy. When he failed to complete 60% or more of his passes the Nittany Lions would usually struggled. When he would complete over 65% of his passes he would have a great game. Clifford’s accuracy must continue to improve in games or Penn State will continue to struggle this season. Clifford also must return to using his instincts as a runner and scrambling for yards when given the opportunity. Clifford’s yards per carry dropped to 1.3 from 3.4 in 2020. The drop could be credited to his injuries, but nonetheless he must increase his yards per carry and continue to keep defenses honest with his running ability.
The Penn State schedule features early season trips to Purdue and Auburn. Both of these games will set the tone for the season. Winning both of these matchups would likely result in Penn State being 5-0 heading to Ann Arbor and a date with the Michigan Wolverines. The success of the Nittany Lions’ season will be a result of how Clifford plays. The turnover on the defensive side of the ball puts an emphasis on the experience and leadership of Clifford. Only time will tell if he can replicate his previous accomplishments.