Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford had hours to fill and no opponents to watch in early December, so his mind began to wander. Which college quarterbacks should he study?
“So I kind of got to watching LSU,” Clifford said, "and Joe Burrow."
With spring practice three months away, Clifford already has a 2020 model in mind. Burrow went from first-year starter with respectable numbers to Heisman Trophy winner in one year, guiding LSU to the College Football Playoff title game in the process.
Clifford wants to follow that path.
“If I’m being honest, that’s the only thing I’m thinking about,” Clifford said before the Cotton Bowl. "Winning this game and then going onto the same type of thing that Burrow did the next year."
Clifford was beyond thrilled after Penn State’s 53-39 victory over Memphis at the Cotton Bowl, but the passing game didn’t provide much offensive thrust. Clifford went 11 for 20 for 133 yards, a touchdown and a critical interception that was integral to Memphis’ near-rally from a 15-point deficit.
The quarterback also was sacked four times, a dichotomous stat for an offensive line that was so good in helping to generate 396 yards rushing. For Clifford, the game mirrored the regular season’s second half, when he had just one game that combined a 50% completion rate with more than 200 yards passing.
During that second half, Clifford played with a lower-body injury that he said severely limited his ability to run, a vital component of his success. He was held out of the regular-season finale against Rutgers for treatment, then returned slowly to practice in December.
Studying Burrow: During that downtime, Clifford embarked on his study project. Jevin Stone, Penn State’s video coordinator, details not only every game and practice play of his players but also has access to film of every other program in the country.
So Clifford asked Stone for footage of the nation’s top offenses (LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma) and got to work. He narrowed his focus on Burrow, who had a legendary game in LSU’s 63-28 semifinal win over Oklahoma.
Burrow, the runaway Heisman winner, threw for 493 yards and seven touchdowns against the Sooners. He ran for another, accounting for eight touchdowns, in his best game of a hugely productive season.
Clifford not only watched Burrow for technical and mechanical points but also studied the quarterback’s intangible skills: his tendencies, on-field poise and conduct during games. Clifford was drawn to what he saw.
“That’s what you need to be elite,” Clifford said. “I think I’m a good player, but there’s a ton of room for improvement.”
Burrow comparisons: Some comparisons can be made between Burrow and Clifford’s numbers as first-year starters. At LSU last season, Burrow threw for 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. His completion rate was 57.8%.
Clifford threw for 2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. His completion rate was 59.2%.
Though comparable, the numbers don’t reflect the quarterbacks’ differing stages of their careers. Burrow was a fourth-year player, and graduate transfer from Ohio State, last year at LSU. Clifford just completed his third season at Penn State.
Bowl performances: As he watched Burrow’s video, Clifford took note of the quarterback’s performance in LSU’s bowl game last season. Burrow threw for 394 yards (then a career-high) and four touchdowns against Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl.
That game launched Burrow into 2019, when he increased his completion percentage by 20 points (to 77%) and has produced a ridiculous touchdown/interception ratio.
Last year, it was 16/5. Heading into the upcoming CFP final against Clemson, it’s 55/6.
Clifford didn’t have quite the launch-point bowl game that Burrow did. The Cotton Bowl mirrored Clifford’s second half, when he threw five of his seven interceptions. Clifford continued with some accuracy issues but ran with confidence, a product of feeling healthier than he had since October.
“Going back and studying the tape from the past games, there were too many easy throws that I missed,” Clifford said. "That’s why my completion percentage wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I will change that for next year."
Clifford's development key for PSU in 2020: Clifford’s development is vital to Penn State’s 2020 offense, which welcomes offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota. Ciarrocca, who also will coach quarterbacks, joined Penn State this week at the Cotton Bowl, where he watched Clifford and the offense against Memphis.
Clifford called Ciarrocca a “fiery dude” who will demand much from him. He also received a text from Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan, who raved about Ciarrocca’s influence on his game.
“You can’t hop out there and expect to be great,” Clifford said. “You have to put in day in, day out, a lot of work. You get better throughout each game, so I’ll take that as the same with Coach Ciarrocca. He’s one of those guys who has had a lot of experience and obviously that’s going to go a long way. So I’m just excited to work with him.”