Sean Clifford did not have to watch too much film of Michigan’s defense to notice the giant pair of bookend edge pass rushers whose goal on every pass play is to meet at the quarterback.
Penn State’s fifth-year senior has been productive in the pass game the last two weeks, throwing for 361 yards against Ohio State and 363 versus Maryland while his offensive line has done a decent job giving him time to find the right receiver.
However, the ninth-ranked Wolverines (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) will enter Beaver Stadium on Saturday with one of the nation’s top defenses that will put the heat on Clifford. And it all starts with defensive end Aidan Hutchinson on one side, and outside linebacker David Ojabo on the other.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Ojabo, a junior who played at Blair (N.J.) Academy, the same high school as former Penn State standout and current Baltimore Raven Odafe (Jayson) Oweh, leads the Big Ten in sacks with eight and in forced fumbles with four. The 6-6, 265-pound Hutchinson, a co-captain, has seven sacks.
“I think that they do a very good job of getting pressure on the quarterback,” Clifford said Wednesday. “Both of them are extremely talented. They’ve got speed off the edge but they also have some pretty good moves that come with it. I think that both of them are also very good in the run as well. Fifteen sacks combined with the two of them is a pretty impressive number.”
The No. 23 Nittany Lions (6-3, 3-3), who defeated Maryland last Saturday to break a three-game losing streak, have allowed 20 sacks this season, 11 in the last three weeks. All eyes will be on offensive tackles Rasheed Walker and Caeden Wallace, whose performances have been uneven this season blocking for the run.
Penn State head coach James Franklin called his team’s pass protection “for the most part, solid.” He liked the way the offensive line performed against Maryland, enabling Clifford to find Jahan Dotson for one big play after another. The two connected for touchdowns of 38, 21 and 86 yards, and also had a 45-yard completion.
“I think about a couple of those plays,” Franklin said, “where Sean was able to step up in the pocket and hold on to the ball, which allowed Jahan those few extra seconds to work his route and become open, which led obviously to a big day, and those things go hand in hand.”
The trick is to give Clifford and Dotson the few extra seconds Saturday against the Wolverines’ more dynamic rushers. Graduate transfer guard Eric Wilson, who noted “I’ve never seen a duo” like Ojabo and Hutchinson, said one of the keys for the line is communication.
“The challenge to me and the rest of the offensive line and as a unit is to communicate,” he said, “be thorough understanding where they are on the field, where their defensive line is on the field, understanding what front they’re in and just being really clear in our communication about what we’re going to be doing before each play.”
Clifford said he has confidence in the entire offensive line to try to slow the Michigan pass rush, but added there’s been “just a little bit of enhanced focus there.”
Clifford’s running had been a significant part of the offense, either on designed plays or scrambling away from the rush, but he hasn’t done much of either since suffering an apparent upper-body injury on Oct. 9 at Iowa. In the three games since, he has only 17 rushes – 11 sacks, three scrambles and three called run plays.
However, he said Wednesday that his lack of involvement in the ground game has nothing to do with any lingering effects from his injury, but his desire to hang in the pocket and find open receivers.
“We’re putting up numbers in the passing game,” he said. “I feel extremely confident in the pocket right now. I’m getting a lot of protection. Guys are getting open downfield. That’s also influencing it. I feel like there are some plays I can make outside the pocket. When they’re there, I’m going to make them.
“But I’ve also grown up a little bit. I understand that standing in the pocket and waiting that extra half-second or two, there’s going to be guys coming open.”