When Sean Clifford emerged from the Penn State locker room to speak with the media following the Nittany Lions’ 28-20 victory over Auburn, he was greeted by a crowd of fans still remaining inside what seemed like a cavernous Beaver Stadium.
Clifford stopped, took a quick picture, and then proceeded to walk over to the designated interview area. Before taking questions, Clifford joked with Penn State sports information director Greg Kincaid about whether he could wear his hat and sit down during the interview. Eventually, Kincaid relented, though only if Clifford wore the hat facing forward.
Everything was rosy for the Nittany Lions’ signal caller, and why wouldn’t it be?
He had just completed the best performance of his career, going 28 of 32 for 280 yards and two touchdowns through the air to lead his team to a victory in front of an announced crowd of over 109,000 people.
The performance was a far cry from Clifford’s tumultuous 2020 season, one in which he struggled with injuries and accuracy at Penn State limped to a 4-5 record.
Nearly one year, and perhaps more importantly, a full offseason with new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich later, Clifford is showing why he called himself “the most confident quarterback in the country” prior to the season.
“After the year that we had last year, and then now being able to come out and experience this, it’s what it’s all about,” he said after the contest. “It really is, and I mean that, it puts a smile on my face because I know how much we missed this as a community last year.”
Clifford’s big night came, in part, due to his developing connection with preseason All-American wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught 10 passes for 78 yards. That connection was something Clifford said he wasn’t able to form in the pandemic-limited 2020 slate.
“We could’ve had more last year,” Clifford said of he and Dotson. “You work out all offseason with a guy, or numerous guys, we have guys across the board that are showing out. But you didn’t have that last year. I didn’t see Jahan for the whole spring, and then we kind of just bounced into summer. He wasn’t even in my lift group because of COVID, we had to have like 10 people in the weight room. So, getting it back to normalcy and now being able to show what we can do, it’s really exciting.”
On the other side of that coin on Saturday night was Auburn quarterback Bo Nix. Nix, like Clifford, struggled mightily in 2020 as the Tigers went just 6-5. And, like Clifford, he’s working with a new offensive coordinator in Mike Bobo after Auburn cleaned house in the offseason.
While Nix wasn’t responsible for Auburn’s loss, he also wasn’t able to win the game for his team, either. The junior, who has actually made more career starts than the redshirt senior Clifford, finished the game 21 of 37 for 185 yards with no interceptions, but also no touchdowns. When the Tigers needed to chase the game, as they did for much of Saturday’s second half, he wasn’t able to come up with the big play, as misreads and inaccuracy plagued him throughout the night.
“Yeah, not good enough,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said when asked to assess his passing game on the night. “We needed to hit some explosive plays. We had opportunities to do that.”
In essence, Saturday’s game was a clear display of the stark contrast between a team with a quarterback capable of making the plays necessary to win games and one without. The Tigers’ run game, defense and special teams gave them a shot to win in a hostile environment, but Nix did not.
On the contrary, Clifford shined.
If the Nittany Lions are to achieve their larger goals, with games against Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan looming, he’ll likely need to shine again.