Sean Clifford, Penn State’s big-play QB, looking to hit another gear
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has launched a quick start to his career, compiling the nation’s fourth-highest passer rating through the season’s infancy.
That said, Clifford finds no time for back-patting as the Lions prepare to host Pitt on Saturday. Further, the redshirt sophomore said he’s not interested in it.
“I really do not enjoy complimenting myself, probably cause there’s always something you can do better,” Clifford said. “If I broke down Tom Brady’s film, I could probably tell you something he could do better. I’m not saying that I have any right to be critiquing Tom Brady. But at the same time, I think that Tom Brady would also say that he has things he needs to work on.”
As he prepares for his first start against a Power 5 opponent, Clifford finds plenty of flaws from his first two weeks of game film. He could be much better on third down; only two FBS teams have converted fewer third downs than Penn State, which is 3 for 17.
Clifford also anticipates developing a quicker sense for reading defenses against the run, something that has led him to carrying the ball more than any running back through two games.
But Clifford leads the Big Ten in yards per completion (18.63), has completed 12 passes longer than 20 yards and hasn’t committed a turnover. As growing pains go, he’s handling them.
“I just keep seeing him getting better, getting more confident, getting more relaxed,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “You know, getting more assertive in some areas. And I think you’re just going to see, because the way he approaches things, him and (fellow quarterback) Will Levis, that they are just going to continue to get better. It’s going to be gradual.”
Before the season, Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said he expected Clifford to be a big-play quarterback, considering his ability to throw the deep ball. That has been true so far: 40 percent of Clifford’s completions have been for 20 yards or longer, with six producing touchdowns.
Clifford is the first Penn State quarterback to throw six touchdown passes in his first two games since Daryll Clark in 2008. In addition, Clifford has the team’s second-longest run, a 58-yarder against Buffalo that helped set up a touchdown.
“Nothing that anyone has brought (defensively) has surprised me, because I learned a lot from Trace (McSorley) when he was here,” Clifford said. “I was in his ear constantly, talking to him about coverages and what it’s like to be under the lights.”
In the run game, Clifford said he feels confident in his decision-making, which has trended toward keeping the ball often. Clifford’s 18 carries leads the team, with no running back having more than 11. Clifford also is tied for the lead in rushing yards (108) with Devyn Ford, whose total includes an 81-yard touchdown run.
Franklin said this week that the running back rotation will continue, though the backs got little work last week against Buffalo. Clifford carried 11 times for 51 yards in that game; Penn State’s four backs ran 11 times for 39 yards.
Clifford said that, over time, he’ll get better knowing when to run.
“Each read is different in its own regard,” Clifford said. “You’re reading the demeanor of guys and where guys are on the field. There’s just a lot that goes into it.”
Clifford said he expects Pitt lean defensively on Penn State’s run game, and receiver Jahan Dotson expects to see tighter man-to-man coverage than in the first two games. For Clifford, that means more to critique.
He’s looking forward to it.
“I’m excited for another week that I can come out and put on a show,” Clifford said. “… No. 1, I need to stay locked in and focused on each and every play, especially on third down. That’s definitely one big critique. When I watch film, I see something that I could have done if I just had my eyes in the right place or had my feet set in the right spot.”