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Freshman quarterback Christian Veilleux steps forward and sparks Penn State

On a strange day when 21 Nittany Lions players, including quarterback Sean Clifford, sat out because of flu-like symptoms, Veilleux passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns

Penn State quarterback Christian Veilleux goes airborne on a keeper while trying to elude Rutgers defenders Tyshon Fogg (8) and Max Melton (16).
Penn State quarterback Christian Veilleux goes airborne on a keeper while trying to elude Rutgers defenders Tyshon Fogg (8) and Max Melton (16).Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The warning bells sounded in the heads of the Penn State fan base entering the 2021 season wondering how the Nittany Lions would function without an experienced backup quarterback in the event Sean Clifford could not play.

Except for the coaching staff and players, no one knew what they had. Redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson had played just a few snaps in mop-up situations. Christian Veilleux enrolled in January after not having been able to play high school ball in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Roberson started the season as the No. 2 quarterback but his only action came in Game 6 at Iowa after Clifford took a major hit in the ribs. A ferocious Hawkeyes defense, poor field position and an eardrum-shattering crowd rendered him ineffective in Penn State’s first loss of the year.

Veilleux, who moved up to second string last week, got his chance in Game 11 after a flu-weakened Clifford was lifted after 14 snaps. Playing before a much friendlier crowd Saturday at Beaver Stadium, the young Canadian threw three touchdowns in the Lions’ 28-0 victory over Rutgers.

The Lions (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten), who clinched their seventh winning season in James Franklin’s eight years as head coach, wrap up the regular season Saturday at No. 12-ranked Michigan State (9-2, 6-2) at 3:30 p.m. in a game to be televised by 6ABC.

Veilleux starred on a day when Franklin was unsure which players would be available because of the bug that had gone through the team all week. The coach said after the game that 21 players sat out and another 14 played through it, including star wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught Veilleux’s first collegiate touchdown toss.

Veilleux, who also threw scoring passes of 17 yards to Parker Washington and 67 yards to countryman Malick Meiga, completed 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards. He impressed his teammates with his poise and his fearlessness running with the football. He gained 14 yards on his first run as a Penn Stater and wound up with 36 yards on 10 carries while being sacked once.

“He was very poised,” Dotson said. “He never seemed to get rattled at any point in the game. He stayed calm and made the right reads. He had a tremendous game. It was everything and more than you could ask for in a freshman quarterback. I’m just excited to see what he’s going to do later on down the road.”

The 6-foot-4, 202-pound Veilleux was so impressive that social media was active the rest of the day wondering what would have happened if he, and not Roberson, had taken over at Iowa, or if he could have subbed for Clifford in the overtime loss against Illinois, a game in which the veteran starter was clearly less than 100%.

Franklin, who spent much of the offseason without success trying to find an experienced quarterback in the NCAA transfer portal who wouldn’t mind being a backup, was asked after Saturday’s game if Veilleux should have been elevated to No. 2 sooner. He began his answer by saying that Roberson had been in the program longer and gave the Lions the best chance to win at Iowa.

“After the way Veilleux played today, I get the question,” Franklin said. “I understand it totally, but he’s just gotten better. You’ve got to remember, he didn’t play football his senior year. His season got canceled because of COVID.

“He just keeps getting better and I was proud of him. He was very poised, made some plays with his legs, made some big-time throws, made some checks. It’s something to build on but I get the question. He’s gotten better. That’s the difference and that’s the reason.”

Franklin said Veilleux also has improved in his “grasp and understand of the playbook and knowing it inside and out,” and knowing how to adjust pass protection. Doing all that has built his confidence, he said.

The coach also supported Roberson.

“There’s a big difference between being in this environment against this opponent compared to that one” at Iowa, he said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for Ta’Quan. He’s done all the things right since he’s been here.”

The victory marked the end of a crazy week for the Nittany Lions as the flu spread. Franklin said Clifford, Veilleux and Roberson were not able to practice Friday and that he was prepared to start walk-on Mason Stahl against Rutgers. Two starters on the offensive line, tackle Rasheed Walker and center Mike Miranda, were sidelined and another, tackle Caeden Wallace, left the game early. Linebacker Curtis Jacobs also sat out.

As for the next game at Michigan State, Franklin said, “Hopefully we’ll get everybody back. We had a few more issues here after the game, hopefully we’ll get everybody back next week because obviously we’re going to need it on the road against a great opponent.”