Charting the Course of Sean Clifford’s Roller-Coaster Penn State Career

Barbara Merkley

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford. Photo by Paul Burdick

Sean Clifford is a sports agency head, a labor organizer, a team leader and co-captain – likely for his record fourth season — and a college student, with two degrees…and counting.

He’s also a very veteran starting quarterback (he turned 24 on July 14) heading into his fourth season as Penn State’s starting QB. It’s possible he could hit a half-hundred games played as Nittany Lion.

All-time, among the 21 Nittany Lion quarterbacks who have started at least 10 games since 1966, Clifford ranks among the best. He is tied for 10th in overall victories and fifth for career starts.

In other ways, he’s also among the not-so-best in the modern area – ranking 18th out of the 21 QBs in winning percentage (.636) and third in most losses as a starter (12).

His career as a starter can be placed into two parts: 8-0, then 13-12.

Clifford came out of the gates blazing as a starter, going 8-0 to start 2019 and taking the Nittany Lions all the way to a No. 5 ranking heading into their game at Minnesota on Oct. 9, 2019 — which they lost 31-26.

Since then, he’s been 13-12 as a starter, sitting out starts vs. Rutgers in 2019 with an injury and vs. Iowa in 2020 as PSU was riding a four-game losing streak. (Will Levis started both games, going 1-1, then going to Kentucky after the ’20 season).

The 2021 season was also a tale of two Cliffords:

Last season, Clifford returned to his early 2019 form and guided Penn State to a 5-0 start, with big wins and strong performances over Wisconsin (no picks) and Auburn (28 of 32), and a No. 4 ranking heading into their game at No. 3 Iowa. Then, ahead 17-3 despite two early interceptions, Clifford got injured and didn’t play another down, as the game and then the 2021 season slipped away.

We’ll hear from Clifford himself on Wednesday about the pressure that comes with wearing all those hats, when he joins Penn State coach James Franklin and teammates Ji’Ayir Brown and PJ Mustipher at the Big Ten Conference media days in Indianapolis.

As admirable all that Clifford is accomplishing off the field is, there are still games to be played. And opportunity awaits Clifford. As I wrote in March, Clifford has a chance to emulate the final-season success of Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

Here are three charts that help define Clifford The Quarterback as he heads into his sixth season at Penn State, beginning Sept. 1 on the road in a nationally-televised night game at Purdue:

1. TALE OF TWO CLIFFORDS

When Clifford left the game midway through the first half against Iowa, Penn State was up 17-3 and Clifford had already thrown 25 passes, though two of them were interceptions. With his backup Ta’Quan Roberson at QB, Penn State gained just 50 yards and 46 yards.

The Nittany Lions and Clifford were not the same after that, as Clifford fought through significant injuries and an illness, yet somehow started the next seven games. As the chart below shows, after the Iowa game Clifford was sacked a ton (seven in the first six games, 23 in the final 7) and couldn’t run the ball (173 yards in the first 6 games, minus-10 in the final 7). His mobility was deeply impacted and it showed, as the Nittany Lions limped to a 2-6 finish after starting 5-0. His completion percentage also dropped precipitously, from 66% to 57%, as Penn State did not have a runner gain over 100 yards in a single game in 2021.

Yet, he managed to throw for over 300 yards three times in the second half of the season – all on the road. He passed for 313 yards and a TD at Ohio State; for 363 yards and three TDs at Maryland; and for 361 yards and three TDs in the snow at Michigan State.

CLIFF in 2021 W/L* Cmp Att Yds % TD Int Sack Runs -Yds -Avg
First 6 games 5-1 118 178 1,482 66% 11 5 7 44-173-3.9
Last 7 games 2-5 143 250 1,625 57% 10 3 23 55-(-10)-(-.2)

2. WINNINGEST PSU QBS SINCE 1966

Penn State has had 21 quarterbacks start at least 10 games since 1966, Joe Paterno’s first season as head coach. The following chart is based on the final result of games started, with a minimum of 10 starts.

Clifford ranks No. 5 in career starts, at 33, tied with Todd Blackledge. Barring injury, Clifford will pass Trace McSorley and Tony Sacca, who are tied for No. 1 with 40 starts each, followed by Christian Hackenberg (38) and Zack Mills (34).

Quarterback Record Win % as Starter Years/Records as Starter
Trace McSorley 31-9 .775 2016-18: 11-3, 11-2, 9-4
Todd Blackledge 29-4 .879 1980-82: 8-1, 10-2, 11-1
Tony Sacca 29-10-1 .738 1988-91: 2-3, 7-2-1, 9-3, 11-2
Chuck Fusina 28-3 .906 1976-78: 6-1, 11-1, 11-1
John Hufnagel 26-3 .896 1970-72: 5-0, 11-1, 10-2
John Shaffer 25-1 .962 1984-86: 2-0, 11-1, 12-0
Chuck Burkhart 22-0 1.000 1968-79: 11-0, 11-0
Tom Shuman 22-2 .917 1973-74: 10-2, 12-0
Daryll Clark 22-4 .906 2008-09: 11-2, 11-2
Kerry Collins 21-5 .808 1992-94: 2-3, 7-2, 12-0
Wally Richardson 21-5 .808 1993, 95-96: 1-0, 9-3, 11-2
SEAN CLIFFORD 21-12 .636 2019-21: 10-2, 4-4, 7-6
Christian Hackenberg 21-17 .553 2013-15: 7-5, 7-6, 7-6

Also: Kevin Thompson, 18-6 (.750), 1998-99; Anthony Morelli, 18-8 (.692), 2006-07; Zack Mills, 16-18 (.470), 2001-04; Tom Sherman, 13-7-1 (.643), 1966-67; Matt McGloin, 13-9 (.590), 2010-12; Michael Robinson, 12-6 (.667), 2003-05; Rob Bolden, 11-5 (.688), 2010-11; Mike McQueary, 9-3 (.750), 1997.

3. RECORD WATCH

Clifford has started 33 games and played in 38 games in his Penn State career. He could hit the half-century mark of games played if he stays healthy in 2022. That would be a significant and eye-popping milestone in an era where many players are three-and-out. Micah Parsons, who opted out of the 2020 season, played just about half that number in his Nittany Lion career – 26 games, 13 each in 2018 and 2019.

Here is where Clifford stands in a number of career records categories at Penn State; in most cases, he is ultimately chasing McSorley, a teammate in 2017-18:

Career Category Clifford Rank Clifford Stat No. 1 All-Time at Penn State – Player / Stat
Completion Percentage 1 60.39% (2) Daryll Clark 60.16%
Passing Touchdowns 2 62 Trace McSorley 70
Total Yards (all positions) 2 8,736 McSorley 11,596
TDs Responsible For 2 72 McSorley 107
Passing Yards 3 7,839 McSorley 9,899
Completions 3 607 McSorley 720
Passing Efficiency 3 141.2 Mike McQueary 145.6
Rushing Yards, QB 3 897 McSorley 1,697
300-Yard Passing Games 3 7 McSorley 10
200-Yard Passing Games 3 19 McSorley 28
Passing Attempts 4 1,006 Christian Hackenberg 1,235
Rushing Touchdowns, QB 6 10 McSorley 30
Yards Per Pass Attempt 7 7.8 McQueary 8.9
Lowest Interception % 8 2.49 Wally Richardson 2.02
Touchdown Pass % 10 6.16 Elwood Petchel 9.14
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