Sean Clifford didn’t panic. He didn’t try to force anything. Instead of taking off at the first sign of a menacing Wisconsin pass rusher coming toward him, he stayed in the pocket looking for an open receiver.
And after leading Penn State’s revamped offense to all of 43 total yards in the first half Saturday, the fifth-year senior quarterback remained poised and found a rhythm in the second half, passing for 201 yards and leading the Nittany Lions to 16 points against the Badgers’ strong defense for the road W.
“He just kept the offense calm and collected through the first half when we weren’t really getting anything going,” junior running back Noah Cain said Tuesday. “At halftime, he was just really keeping our confidence up. He kept the whole offense calm. He didn’t want to have anybody pointing fingers. He just kept saying, ‘We will start making plays, we will get the offense going.’
“He’s a great leader. He’s been a great leader for us all summer, through summer workouts, through [training] camp. I wouldn’t have any other quarterback than him in that backfield. He’s just a great leader that we have right now.”
Clifford long ago put the dismal 2020 season behind him. After turning the ball over 10 times during the Lions’ 0-5 start, he settled down in the final four games and led his team to wins with only one interception and one lost fumble. He began his third season as Penn State’s starter error-free on the turnover front, a promising start.
Head coach James Franklin says preparation always has been a strength of Clifford.
“I think he’s always really prepared well … kind of understanding what you have to do at this level and the next to be successful,” Franklin said at his weekly news conference. “He’s always done a good job of that. I also think the success he’s had has built confidence.
“I think the challenges and the adversity he’s had has built thick skin, which I think is valuable, too. And I don’t think anybody would question his toughness based on this past game as well as last year.”
Clifford, who will make his 2021 home debut Saturday at Beaver Stadium against defending Mid-American Conference champion Ball State, had three starting wideouts from whom to choose against Wisconsin. All-Big Ten performer Jahan Dotson caught five passes on 11 targets for 102 yards, one of them a 49-yard touchdown reception.
Sophomores KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington each were targeted six times, catching four passes. Lambert-Smith’s 52-yard catch was the Lions’ longest play of the game.
“Sean is a great leader, the ultimate competitor,” Lambert-Smith said. “When we weren’t scoring, he was coming to the sideline still keeping a positive attitude; in the locker room at halftime, a positive attitude, talking us up. Sean has always been like that since I got here and I know that has to be how he was made. He’s a great leader, a great competitor, and has a great work ethic.”
Unlike last year, when he had to discuss the offense with Franklin and then-coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca mostly over Zoom and FaceTime because of the pandemic, Clifford has been absorbing in-person all the advice and instructions from new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
He especially liked Yurcich’s approach at halftime Saturday.
“He didn’t blink an eye,” Clifford said after the game. “He just told us it’s just a matter of time, and that’s really how this is. As long as you can keep it close, it doesn’t matter. It can be the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter. You saw how fast we moved the ball. You saw once we got hot, we get hot. Now we’ve just got to roll with it like we played in the second half.”
The offense continues to be a work in progress. Clifford targeted his tight ends, Theo Johnson and Brenton Strange, three times without a completion. None of the backup wide receivers were thrown a pass. But the Nittany Lions passed their first test in a hostile setting, and Franklin liked what he saw from his quarterback.
“I’m really proud of him,” he said. “I think you’ll see him grow in comfort as the year goes on with the offense and what it’s about.”