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As quarterback Sean Clifford goes, so will Penn State’s football season

The Nittany Lions' fifth-year senior threw 23 touchdown passes with eight turnovers during an 11-2 season in 2019, but had a horrific five-game start the following year with 10 turnovers.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford stands with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich 
during practice on Aug. 7, 2021.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford stands with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich 
during practice on Aug. 7, 2021.Read moreCRAIG HOUTZ / For The Inquirer

It’s a simple statement: The success of Penn State football this season depends on how well quarterback Sean Clifford plays.

Will the Nittany Lions see Clifford revert to his form of 2019, when he passed for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns while turning the ball over just eight times in 12 games during their 11-2 Cotton Bowl championship season? Or will they see the return of the struggling signal caller of early 2020 when he threw eight interceptions and lost two fumbles — both of which were returned for touchdowns — in the Lions’ dreadful 0-5 start?

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The fifth-year senior needs to come out fast. Penn State, ranked 19th in the first Associated Press poll, opens Saturday at No. 12 Wisconsin. Weeks 3 and 5 bring Auburn and No. 17 Indiana to Beaver Stadium, followed by a trip to No. 18 Iowa on Oct. 9. A 4-2 start wouldn’t be terrible, but it could mean the Lions will be looking up yet again at Ohio State in the Big Ten East, and without a College Football Playoff berth for another year.

So yes, the heat is on Clifford.

“I think any time a team has a starting quarterback returning, it sets them aside from the ones that have a quarterback competition, so I think that puts pressure on him,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said Friday in a telephone interview.

“The second thing is, there’s been no time in the history of football where it’s been so quarterback-based on offense, quarterback-centric. More than ever, as the quarterback goes, so goes the team, so goes the program. And the third thing … I think learning a new offense or a new system or a new relationship, that’s going to be important as well.

“But if anybody is going to catch Ohio State, I don’t think it’s really possible without outstanding quarterback play, the way the game’s being played nowadays.”

DiNardo is familiar with new Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who was a graduate assistant at Indiana in 2003 and 2004 when DiNardo was head coach there. Yurcich is Clifford’s third offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in the last three seasons, and fourth in the last five.

DiNardo thinks having so many offensive coordinators in one’s career “doesn’t necessarily have to be a disadvantage.”

“If it was the same quarterback coach for four years, my guess is that would be better,” he said. “Under the circumstances, the nowadays quarterback, the nowadays athlete, is much better prepared in my opinion to have four coaches in five years.”

While Clifford and former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca communicated mostly over Zoom and FaceTime last season before the late opening of training camp, he and Yurcich have been practically inseparable since January and often discuss the adjustments being made to the offense.

Interviewed by DiNardo during the BTN’s trip to Penn State’s training camp, Yurcich said Clifford’s ceiling was very high.

“He’s a tremendous leader,” he said. “Sean is all about helping this team win. He’s willing to do whatever it takes. So therefore, you’ve just got to try to help him. You have to guide him and help him get where he wants to be, and he wants to be great. So it’s whatever that takes, detail in meetings and the technique work and watching all the film we can with him and prepare for each game plan.”

Clifford, who made it clear that Penn State media day would be the last time he addressed the 2020 season, said he has appreciated the teaching of his coordinators — Joe Moorhead, Ricky Rahne and Ciarrocca — and that he’s “taken the good and the bad and learned from it.”

Clifford said Yurcich has “brought a lot of good out of me, things I never thought I could do.

“He’s given me a lot of chances to prove to him that he can trust me changing plays and making protection calls and putting us in the right play, whatever it is,” he said on Aug. 11, his most recent talk with the media. “I feel like I’ve done that so far and he’s been happy with how I’ve been progressing. He says it all the time, you can’t be OK with where you’re at. I’ll never be satisfied with where I’m at obviously.”

If there is another thing that makes coaches and fans squirm as much as turnovers, it’s a running quarterback. Clifford has averaged just over 10 carries per game — counting sacks — the last two seasons and rushed for 737 yards. He has gotten better at the art of sliding, but the competitor in him still likes to fight for extra yards on occasion.

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However, with inexperienced backups Ta’Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux behind him, Clifford needs to be careful and not needlessly risk injury. When the subject was brought up at the team’s media day, he said, “I’ll run as much as the team needs me to” and that he doesn’t think about injury.

“They’ve got to convince Sean,” DiNardo said, “that as much as a competitor as you can be, you’re the one person who has the ball in his hands every play. You have an opportunity to make the most plays on the entire team, you’ve got to be smart and you can’t always take that risk.”

Clifford bounced back after the ugly start to last season, taking better care of the football and losing one fumble and throwing one interception in the four games. The play-calling was more shaded to the run, with the Lions calling almost 65% rushing plays.

What this all means when the football is kicked off for the first time in 2021 remains to be seen. It takes more than one player to win or lose a game, but Clifford is in the spotlight.