Backup quarterback shines in win for flu-ravaged Penn State team

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Christian Veilleux (9) looks to fend off Rutgers linebacker Mohamed Toure (58) during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Penn State shut out Rutgers 28-0. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

UNIVERSITY PARK — As late as Friday night ahead of Penn State football's Saturday noon matchup with Rutgers, James Franklin didn't know who his quarterback was going to be.

The Nittany Lions were dealing with a team-wide sickness that afflicted nearly every signal caller. In fact, he thought there was a good chance the team would've had to dig deep for its starter.

"It was gonna be (walk-on) Mason Stahl (starting at quarterback)," Franklin said. " Mason Stahl took all the reps."

Franklin still wasn't sure until close to kickoff that redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford would be able to go. Clifford didn't come out for warmups because he was getting an IV in the locker room. Even then, Clifford could not last. The redshirt senior gave it all he had before Franklin made the decision to go with the team's backup — true freshman Christian Veilleux.

What ensued was the best offensive performance Penn State has put together in weeks and an impressive showing by the true freshman in his first game action as a college athlete.

Veilleux completed 15-of-24 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the 28-0 victory and looked poised for the most part. He botched one snap early on, but that was his lone blunder in an otherwise good performance.

Freshman overcomes illness: Leading up to the game, however, Veilleux wasn't even a guarantee to be available. He was one of the players dealing with the illness but managed to overcome it in time for the game..

"What happened was we had a wave of this illness and then come Friday morning, the second wave hit us and that's when we didn't have a quarterback," Franklin said. "All of the quarterbacks were there earlier in the week and then all of a sudden, they all got knocked out. ... we weren't sure if Christian was gonna go last night."

If the freshman quarterback was feeling any after effects of the illness, it didn't show in the game. He looked confident and energized on the field, using his legs to pick up first downs and navigating the pocket like he'd been starting for three years.

His demeanor wasn't a surprise: His demeanor wasn't a surprise to his teammates who have seen Veilleux act that way since he enrolled at Penn State just under 11 months ago.

"With Christian, it's different," star wide receiver Jahan Dotson said. "You don't see any fear, any backing down or anything like that. He's been ready for the moment ever since he came in here. He's been practicing like it, playing like it. He finally got to show you guys today the talent that he has. ... He's a tremendous talent, has a tremendous arm, tremendous leadership skills; this was no surprise for me. I know that the kid he is. I can't wait to see him develop and play in the future."

Moving past Roberson: His performance calls into question the reasoning on his status prior to this week, when Franklin named him the team's backup quarterback. Until that point, redshirt sophomore Ta'Quan Roberson had been the backup and took the field when Clifford was injured against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Oct. 9.

Roberson struggled in the game and the team decided to go with a banged up Clifford two weeks later against Illinois because, at the time, Franklin said it was the decision that gave the Nittany Lions the best opportunity to succeed.

One month later, things have changed and gone in Veilleux's favor, as evidenced by his performance compared to Roberson's in Iowa City. Franklin said the comparisons between games, however, don't exactly line up.

"I also don't know if going on the road at Iowa, No. 2 in the country, and his first three possessions at the minus one, the minus two and the minus one (are the same as Veilleux's debut)," Franklin said.

Showing growth: Not to mention, the Penn State head coach said the performance the true freshman had today didn't mean he was always in position to play like he did.

Franklin credited the young quarterback with showing growth in his first few months as a Nittany Lion.

"They're allowed to get better," he said. "You know, at that point, it was not obvious that he was going to be the backup quarterback. ... After the way Veilleux played today, I get the question. I understand it totally, but he's just gotten better. You got to remember, he didn't play football his senior year. His season got canceled because of COVID. So, he just keeps getting better and I was proud of him. He was very poised today, made some plays with his legs, made some big-time throws, made some checks."

Good decision: One of the checks Franklin referenced came on the first touchdown the team scored in the game. Veilleux saw the coverage the defense was in, which was Cover 0 meaning no safety help was over the top with man coverage on the receivers, and checked to a play designed to beat that coverage and found Dotson in the end zone.

The decision worked like a charm and gave Penn State a 7-0 lead that it would not relinquish while showing how good Veilleux could be.

He established himself as the best option behind Clifford and a viable alternative in a pinch, something Penn State lacked earlier in the season. Regardless of how the Nittany Lions got to this point, they are now here.

Making all the throws: But there's something more to what Veilleux did on Saturday. He made all of the throws, showed off the easy arm strength that made him tantalizing as a recruit and even displayed the type of mobility that makes him a threat in the run game.

At the end of the day, it was one game against one bad opponent. But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.

Veilleux showed the flashes on Senior Day that make it easy to envision him as the team's starting quarterback in the not-so-distant future.