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Clifford meets first-game challenge

UNIVERSITY PARK — OK, let’s not get too carried away with anything that happened Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Idaho just didn’t provide the kind of barometer for the Nittany Lions to gauge themselves.

The final score was 79-7, and it wasn’t that close.

But, when you’re breaking in a new quarterback, you’re looking for somebody to deliver the ball to the open receiver, show poise in the pocket and provide the kind of leadership that inspires confidence that will be needed as the season unfolds.

Sean Clifford checked those boxes quite nicely.

Clifford completed 14-of-23 for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He was not intercepted or sacked.

“As the game went on,” James Franklin said, “he was accurate.”

The redshirt sophomore (who has three years of eligibility available, including this one) showed a bit of everything — accuracy, touch, the ability to tuck it and move the chains on the ground (seven carries for 57 yards) — and did it all without anyone feeling the void of Tommy Stevens.

It was Stevens’ abrupt departure in April that opened the door for Clifford to become Penn State’s starter.

Stevens won the Mississippi State job and had a good game Saturday, completing 20-of-30 passes for 236 yards and two scores In a win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

But it’s hard to believe he would have done any better than Clifford did against Idaho.

About the only demerits Clifford had were a couple of errant passes early, when he missed open receivers Daniel George and Pat Freiermuth, fumbled (he recovered) and then had a pass batted down at the line.

“The first couple drives he missed some throws,” Franklin said. “His feet were probably a little antsy, but he really settled down.”

Clifford didn’t think he’d be nervous. He told friends during the week, “don’t worry about me,” but that changed when the blue buses approached Beaver Stadium amid the usual sea of Nittany Lion faithful.

“When I was making my way through the crowd,” he said, “I felt the energy.”

And the inevitable nerves.

“The first two drives were not up to my standards,” Clifford said. “My feet were all over the place.”

A talk with explosive receiver KJ Hamler on the sidelines relaxed him. The two have been friends since the recruiting trail.

“He just seemed a little uptight, a little jittery,” Hamler, who caught four passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns, said. “I just pulled him aside and said, ‘calm down.'”

“He told me to chill out,” Clifford said. “But he really didn’t need to tell me. I knew I needed to calm down.”

From the third series on, Clifford was in command. His best moment came when he was flushed from the pocket, kept his eyes downfield and lofted a perfectly-placed 36-yard TD to Hamler that extended the Lions’ lead to 27-0 in the second quarter.

The rout was on.

“That’s how I could tell he was in a groove,” Hamler said.

“Sean was pretty comfortable in the pocket,” Franklin said.

A total of 13 receivers caught passes, and Clifford was adept at dumping off to the backs as the Lions unleashed their bevy of young talent at the tailback position.

In the process, Clifford satisfied all of the first-game expectations that had been set forth by and for him.

“He seemed like he’s been there before – very comfortable,” center Michal Menet said. “He prepared all spring and all camp for this moment, and he stepped up. As things started to roll, you could tell his confidence continued to grow, which was good for our offense and for him.”

Clifford was all smiles afterward, no doubt somewhat relieved to get his first game behind with such solid results.

“You want to go into the rest of the season at peak performance,” he said. “It’s nice to get the jitters out of the way.”

At the same time, he didn’t mind noting: “When you score 79 points, it’s not a bad day at the office.”

Not a bad day, indeed.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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