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Scouting Penn State QB Sean Clifford ahead of showdown vs. Michigan

Clifford is receiving a lot of praise nationally, but is it warranted? We take a look.

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NCAA Football: Penn State Blue-White Game Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines face their toughest test to date in a road game against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Not only is Penn State the best team the Wolverines have faced to this point in the season, they also have the best quarterback Michigan has went up against as well.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford had major shoes to fill with the departure of Trace McSorley, but Clifford hasn’t skipped a beat and the Penn State offense has been a high powered one in 2019.

On the season, Clifford has thrown for 1,560 yards, 13 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions and has completed 64.2% of his throws. Clifford is averaging a healthy 9.8 yards per attempt and is somewhat reliant on the long ball.

While Clifford is 6-foot-2 and McSorley was 6-foot-zero, they’re similar in a few ways, especially when it comes to their scrambling prowess. Clifford can really scoot as a ball carrier and it buys him extra time to throw and leads to read-option runs that gain enough yards to move the chains. Clifford is already up to 252 yards rushing on the year, along with 2 rushing scores.

Do your homework

Clifford vs. Maryland (26-of-31 for 398 yards, 3 TD’s, 1 INT, 54 yards rushing & 1 TD)

Clifford vs. Purdue (20-for-29 for 264 yards, 3 TD’s, 1 INT, 33 yards rushing & 1 TD)


  • Quick strike capabilities: Clifford doesn’t hesitate when he sees an open man. This characteristic has been especially helpful with short to intermediate throws and hitting his target in stride. For plays that require getting the ball out quickly, Clifford is able to do so.
  • Touch: While Clifford has a healthy amount of arm strength, his touch passes are just as impressive. He has the ability to drop the ball over the heads of linebackers and deliver an accurate ball past the second level of the defense.
  • Ability to improvise: When a play breaks down, Clifford has speed to buy extra time but also is able to keep his eyes down field and direct traffic to get the ball to an open receiver.
  • Scrambling prowess: Even when Clifford isn’t beating a team with his arm, he can win a game running the football. Versus Iowa, Clifford completed just 12 passes for 117 yards but his 52 yards on the ground proved to be valuable and extended drives. It’s not all about being able to scramble, it’s about knowing when to do so, and Clifford’s instincts are usually more good than bad in this regard.


  • Footwork can improve: It’s good for a quarterback to keep his feet moving, but Clifford can become a little bit too fidgets with his footwork when the pocket collapses. Even Clifford has mentioned that improving his footwork is a point of emphasis for him. “I think each week, you have to find something to critique yourself about,” Clifford said. “Footwork’s been, in the past few weeks, definitely something I’ve been really watching for myself. But I think I’m getting better at it every week, keeping sound footwork throughout the pocket.”
  • TD:INT ration slightly deceiving: You could point to any QB and say they probably could have a few more interceptions than they actually do, and this applies to Clifford as well. Penn State hasn’t played a lot of good teams this season and Clifford has under-thrown some balls and made others into too tight of coverage. Due to bad secondary play and luck on Clifford’s side, he hasn’t really paid for many of his mistakes, throwing 13 TD’s and only 2 INT’s.
  • Gets rattled when the blitz keeps coming: Watching film of Iowa’s performance against Clifford and PSU, it exploited an area of improvement for the QB. Clifford can panic when pressured and at times he’ll throw an errant pass or stop looking down the field in hopes of finding a non-existent running lane to avoid a sack. Clifford’s completion percentage when pressured, per ESPN, is just 39% which is 85th in the FBS.
  • Not a pocket passer: 73.1 ESPN QBR in the pocket, 93.5 QBR outside the pocket.

What they are saying

Clifford was ranked No. 24 on Pro Football Focus quarterback rankings though Week 6:

“He’s playing an extremely exciting brand of football for the Nittany Lions,” wrote PFF’s Cam Mellor. Even with his hefty depth of target on average, he’s limited himself to just two turnover-worthy passes in a remarkable feat to date. If that keeps up, it’s safe to assume his numbers will continue to be on the rise.”

Jim Harbaugh on Clifford:

“The play is really good. I’ve been really been impressed with his focus just getting a chance to watch the TV copy a few times. I think he’s had a really intense focus that all the really good ones have. He understands the game, he plays it, he’s highly competitive you can see it in his runs, in his nature, just how he plays the game. And very talented, athletic ability, he’s got arm talent. Also, makes really good decisions, you can see his leadership and focus. All really positive.”

James Franklin calls Clifford ‘fiery’:

“He’s a fiery guy. He’s a guy who has fun, whether it’s at practice, whether it’s in meetings, he’s got a maturity to him where he knows when’s the appropriate time to have fun, when’s the appropriate time to lock in and be serious and take notes.”

David Pollack:

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz impressed by Clifford:

“Their quarterback’s play really impressed me, for being a young player in a tough environment. I thought he settled down a little bit, did some good things for them, made some good plays.”


Clifford’s having a fine season, but it’s too soon to believe he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Why? Because he struggled against the best defense he faced this season in Iowa, and also struggled in the only other one score win of the year against Pitt, a game he was just 14-of-30 for 222 yards. He’s had four really good games this year, and two games where he could have played better.

While Clifford likes to throw the deep ball, Penn State loves screen patterns and short-toss crossing patterns. Clifford can hit these with high accuracy, and it’ll be Michigan’s job to make sure there’s little to no yards after catch. If Michigan is able to bottle up the short passing game and make Clifford beat them deep, I find the advantage to swing in Michigan’s favor. It would swing in their favor not because Clifford can’t throw accurately deep, it would because Michigan’s defense will have a good chance at blitzing and getting to Clifford before he’ll be able to deliver a consistent amount of deep balls accurately. Whether it’s Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, or in this case Sean Clifford, every quarterback can be a shell of themselves when a defender is heading downhill towards them like a freight train.

Clifford has enough tools in his toolbox where he can beat a lot of teams in college football, and he’s the type of QB that give a defensive coordinator fits in their gameplan. However, Clifford has shown he has vulnerabilities and it’ll be up to MIchigan to exploit them. Of course, a night game in Happy Valley provides momentum and a decisive home-field advantage, but if Michigan plays disciplined and aggressive football they can limit Clifford’s production. There’s a lot of hype being thrown at Clifford, and we’re about to see if it’s warranted.