Lions, Clifford are trending downward
PSU football commentary
TAMPA — With their defense gutted by players who couldn’t wait to leave Penn State one game early and take their chances in the NFL Draft, the Nittany Lions’ only chance in the Outback Bowl was for their offense to carry the load.
In fact, the defense, minus six starters, hung in as long as it could without any help from the offense in Saturday’s season-ending loss to Arkansas, 24-10, at Raymond James Stadium.
The outcome mercifully put a cap on a most forgettable 7-6 season, but it also raised some important questions entering 2022 — the biggest one being how much longer Sean Clifford, a three-year starter who is returning for a sixth season, will remain the Lions’ starting quarterback.
Clifford was well below average against the Razorbacks, completing 14 of 32 for 195 yards and a touchdown. He fumbled a snap and was intercepted twice, including an almost unforgivable decision into the end zone on first and goal from the Arkansas 10 with 12:39 left and the Lions down 24-10 and hoping to make it a one-score game.
That successfully sucked all the life out of a potential comeback.
In three red-zone trips, the Lions managed a mere field goal.
Clifford missed several open receivers — he had Theo Johnson with nobody near him late in the first half, which would have given the Lions a 17-7 lead — and was pulled due to injury with 10 minutes for freshman Christian Veilleux.
So ineffective was Clifford that I thought he was yanked because James Franklin had seen enough. Not so.
“I thought Sean played gutsy,” Franklin said afterward. “He battled. Obviously, he made some plays, but there’s also some plays he would like to have back.”
Clifford, who went to the locker room in the fourth quarter and did not return, was not available afterward.
Though Clifford will enter 2022 as the presumed starter, with Veilleux having gotten some experience and freshmen quarterbacks Drew Allar and Beau Pribula enrolling in another week — Allar is rated the nation’s top incoming freshman QB — it’s clear the Nittany Lions’ quarterback situation is unsettled.
Saturday wasn’t the time for Franklin to dissect it publicly, but it will need addressed.
After an encouraging 2019 in which he led Penn State to an 11-2 record, Clifford and the Lions have clearly fallen off into mediocrity, going 4-5 and now 7-6.
In the first half Saturday, the Lions were moving the ball and had open receivers, but Clifford didn’t connect, and instead of having 10 points at half, they should have had at least 20.
On his incredible, leaping one-handed catch in the first half, Parker Washington was wide open but Clifford didn’t hit him in stride. He especially has trouble starting well. He almost threw a pick-6 on his first attempt.
As it turned out, the Lions’ offense produced just one touchdown on the day — which came on a blown coverage — and the 10 points marked a season low.
Next year will be Clifford’s fourth year as a starter — the first four-year starter in school history — and yet the Lions are moving steadily further away from being anywhere close to a Top-10 team and instead have a vice grip on mediocrity.
“I think there’s some things we can do to help him,” Franklin said in assessing Clifford.
Well, he better hurry up. Clifford has now made 32 starts, and in the last two years, Penn State has won half of them.
In no Penn State world can that be good enough.
While the early part of next year’s schedule will need his experience, if things aren’t going well in October, it’s hard to imagine Clifford will complete 2022 as the starter.
To go from 5-0 to 7-6 marks the biggest collapse in Penn State history.
Franklin’s freshly extended contract, through 2031, will keep him off what would otherwise be a hot seat next season — so that point is moot — but that doesn’t mean the Nittany Nation is encouraged, or even optimistic, about the current state of the program.
Rudel can be reached at email@example.com.