The long grind of his first season as Penn State’s starting quarterback apparently has caught up with Sean Clifford and it could keep him out of the 12th-ranked NIttany Lions’ final game of the regular season Saturday against Rutgers at Beaver Stadium.
At his weekly media teleconference Tuesday, head coach James Franklin said Clifford’s participation will be a “game-time decision” after the redshirt sophomore suffered an apparent leg injury when he was tackled just after throwing a pass in the third quarter of Saturday’s loss at Ohio State.
Clifford was replaced by redshirt freshman Will Levis, who led the Lions to 17 third-quarter points in the 28-17 defeat. Levis completed 6 of 11 passes for 57 yards with one interception and ran 18 times for 34 yards, totals that included five sacks.
Franklin said Clifford, who has rushed a team-high 103 times this season, has been banged up.
“It’s really probably magnified this week but it’s been a little bit like this for the last three, four weeks with him,” he said. “I really could see a situation where Will plays this week. Now how much he plays, I’m not sure. But I could see us playing Will this week, and Will is going to have to get a little bit more reps in practice just because Sean is not ready to take the amount of reps that he normally would.”
The coach added that he would follow medical recommendations regarding Clifford’s status as the week continues, but he admitted, “Sean’s not the easiest guy, just like Trace [McSorley] was, to pull off the field. They’re competitors.”
Injuries may explain why Clifford’s performance has dropped off in the second half of the season. In his first five games, he completed 66.7% of his passes for an average of 288.6 yards per game. But in his last six, his completion rate has dropped to 53.7% and his average yardage has fallen to 179.7.
He is the Lions’ second-leading rusher with 374 yards but has been sacked 20 times.
The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Levis, who only had run three plays in non-garbage time before Saturday, showed power running with the football against the Buckeyes. Franklin called his showing “remarkable."
“He went in and not only did he play well, but also the team believed," he said. "I think that’s important, that the team believed in him. We didn’t flinch.
“I know that we’ve got to get better and I also know Will knows he has to get better. But we also have kind of a better framework now to know what we need to work on. It’s one thing to do it in practice, it’s another thing to do it in games, so it gives us a very clear understanding of where Will is at.”
Because of the injury to Clifford, freshman quarterbacks Michael Johnson Jr. and Ta’Quan Roberson will get more work in practice to see which one will back up Levis.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Justin Shorter, one of three five-star recruits in Penn State’s 2018 signing class, has entered the NCAA transfer portal, according to a report by Yahoo Sports.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Shorter, of Monmouth Junction, N.J., was coming off a performance against Ohio State when he matched a career high with three catches for 28 yards. For the season, he had caught just 12 passes for 137 yards and no touchdowns.