Understand, there were a few good crutches Sean Clifford could have leaned on over the first month of the season, ones he could have picked up and swung at any point to effectively bat just about any criticism away.
He hadn’t turned the ball over. That’s a big one.
He hadn’t lost. That one’s bigger.
Statistically, he had been solid, compared even to his peers nationally. Coming into the weekend, only a handful of quarterbacks could say they had more than 750 yards passing and at least six touchdowns and no interceptions on their stat line, and Clifford found himself in the company of NFL prospects such as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. At the wheel of a less experienced group of skill-position players, he’s younger than any of them.
To Clifford’s credit, none of that stuff seemed to matter much to him anyway. There was more to him, he insisted before he took the field against Maryland on Friday night. Despite all the numbers and any of the comparisons he could have used to say he was doing just fine, it was Clifford who insisted what Penn State’s offense did through the first three games of the 2019 season wasn’t going to be good enough to get to a level at which the Nittany Lions really believe they can compete.
Stellar Friday night: Then came Friday night at Maryland Stadium, when he got into a quick rhythm he never lost, and the Penn State offense sizzled to a 619-yard performance under his command on the way to a 59-0 win.
By the time he was finished — and he was finished early, two drives into the second half — Clifford had completed 26 of 31 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the Nittany Lions with 54 rushing yards. He accounted for four touchdowns.
Only two quarterbacks in Penn State history threw for more yards in a single game, and none ever threw for more yards in a half than the 287 he picked up on the way to a 38-point halftime lead.
“These are the type of games I’d like to keep having,” Clifford said afterward. “When I’m visualizing the day before or I’m visualizing this morning how games go, I’m visualizing this success, visualizing each play working in our game plan.”
Making good use of bye week: Difficult as it may be, Penn State fans moving ahead should do what Clifford did leading into the Maryland game: Ignore the numbers. Focus on what matters.
What should be focused on instead is how Clifford and the rest of the Nittany Lions offense attacked the bye week leading into the Friday night tilt, because that’s why it all got so much better so quickly. That’s what could make Clifford the quarterback that ultimately takes Penn State back to the Big Ten championship and beyond before his time in Happy Valley is over.
“I think for a young quarterback, the extra time for the bye week was really valuable for him,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “He does it the right way. He and (backup quarterback) Will Levis, they prepare at a really high level.”
That’s a compliment not casually thrown toward first-year starting quarterbacks, but it certainly applies to Clifford.
Unhappy with Pitt performance: Penn State was 3-0 and the statistics told the story of a young quarterback on the rise, but Clifford didn’t like very much about how he felt about his own performance and how it played into a hard-fought 17-10 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 14 at Beaver Stadium. He threw 30 passes that day and completed only 14. He threw for 222 yards, a decent-enough number against a secondary as strong as Pitt’s, but he knew there were a handful of big plays to be had that Penn State didn’t get. An overthrow here and a misread coverage there made for a sloppy afternoon.
“I took that very personal, especially the Pitt game,” Clifford said.” I had a lot of issues that I saw on tape. I knew I needed to make corrections for us to be where we wanted to be.”
"Film junkie:" Sophomore KJ Hamler said he and his fellow wideouts watched more film with the quarterbacks than they ever had leading up to the Maryland game, trying to find areas where Penn State could have made a big play when they made a small one, or none at all, during their first three games. Maybe fans will find this surprising, Hamler acknowledges, but the receiver who typically is the star of postgame interviews isn’t the most talkative guy on the Penn State offense on the sideline.
So, when the self-professed “film junkie” wants to watch film, teammates are there. When he wants to spend “most of my time” in the film room during what is scheduled as an off week,breaking down not just the plays that worked, but also the incompletions and the missteps, they understand.
"Great leader:" When Clifford says the offense can get better, teammates believe it. When he makes a suggestion during a film session, they readily buy in.
“Sean is a great leader,” said tight end Nick Bowers, who caught one of his touchdown passes Friday. “We followed in his footsteps tonight.”
The trick now is to make Friday night what Clifford says it is: A stepping stone. If the Nittany Lions look back on the 2019 regular season in September and point to that 59-point trouncing of Maryland as the highlight, you get the feeling Sean Clifford will be sorely disappointed. Mostly, in himself.
That’s what made him so good Friday night and in the two weeks leading up to it, that honest assessment of not just where he and Penn State can go, but what he and Penn State are. There’s work to do, he says as his postgame interviews broke up.
He headed toward the team bus at around 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning, to watch some more film.