STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Sean Clifford recalled the late nights in the summer of 2019 when KJ Hamler would call him and the two would head to Penn State’s indoor football facility at Holuba Hall to work on different pass routes and continue to develop a relationship on and off the field.
Jahan Dotson, a year behind Clifford and already showing an emerging skill set that would lead to him succeeding Hamler as the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 receiver, saw the connection and wanted that kind of bond with his quarterback as well.
The hard work and the closeness of the two off the field have led to some special moments at Penn State, the latest being Saturday night when Clifford and Dotson teamed up for their 17th and 18th career touchdown passes to set a program record in the Lions’ 24-0 shutout of Indiana at Beaver Stadium.
Even with the victory, Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) remained No. 4 Sunday in the latest Associated Press poll, while Iowa (5-0, 2-0) leapfrogged the Nittany Lions and moved from No. 5 to No. 3 to set up a classic matchup of the two teams Saturday in Iowa City.
The second TD pass, a short flip on fourth down that Dotson took to the house for a 30-yard score in the third quarter, broke the mark of 17 established by quarterback Todd Blackledge and wide receiver Kenny Jackson from 1980 through 1982. Coincidentally, Blackledge was in the ABC broadcast booth when the historic moment occurred.
Dotson, who also made a leaping catch at the back of the end zone for an 8-yard TD, said he noticed in his sophomore year of 2019 how close Clifford and Hamler, now with the Denver Broncos, had been and wanted to grow the same kind of relationship.
“Being right alongside KJ, seeing how those two worked, seeing how they hung out on and off the field, the bond between me and Sean just built from there,” he said. “He has full trust in me, and I have full trust in him that he’s going to make plays. He knows I can make plays. We’re just out there having fun. It’s literally what we do every single day.
“We’re getting closer and closer every single day. I’m hanging out with him off the field. The connection’s working on the field.”
Clifford said the bond between the two continued to evolve and grow stronger, even last year when pandemic restrictions prevented the two players from being on campus. It has continued into this season.
“I think that on the field, obviously, it’s easy to see on the field that we’ve developed a chemistry, but off the field, too,” Clifford said. “He’s one of my best friends hanging out, typical friend stuff. So we’ve developed a really good relationship and you’re seeing it.
“I think it’s just the work ethic that we both have, the work that we put in however long we’ve been together. It’s a great connection. Jahan works extremely hard. It’s something I pride myself on. It’s working with him and the other receivers to make sure that we have that chemistry. Jahan and I have done that for a long time.”
The proof is in the numbers and the success that Penn State has enjoyed thus far in 2021.
After catching eight passes for 84 yards and the two touchdowns against Indiana, Dotson leads the Big Ten with 35 receptions and six touchdowns. He’s also fifth in average receiving yards at 89.2.
Clifford is third in the conference in four categories — passing efficiency, pass yards per game (267.2), completion percentage (67.3%) and touchdown throws (11).
“I think the first thing is, Jahan’s good,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “That helps. Then I think it’s the combination of Jahan’s talent and the time that Sean and Jahan have spent together, whether it’s on the practice field, whether it’s watching film, whether it’s in meetings. The two have played a lot of games together.
“I also think Sean’s ability to extend plays and make plays with his feet puts the defense in conflict. He steps up in the pocket, you’ve got to decide, ‘Am I going to stay with my man or am I going to cover Sean?’ Jahan really has got a good feel of how to get open in those situations and the thing I love about him, he’s always working towards the sideline.”
Clifford, Dotson, and the Nittany Lions offense were supported by another strong effort from the defense, which posted its first shutout since Maryland in September 2019. The unit stopped two Indiana drives into the red zone and limited the Hoosiers to 264 total yards. Joey Porter Jr., and Ji’Ayir Brown each contributed interceptions, both in Penn State territory.
In talking about the record, Clifford made sure to credit the offensive line and the play-calling and put it all in perspective.
“The record’s cool,” he said, “but the coolest record is that we’re undefeated, and that’s really what matters.”