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MMQB - Can Clifford Return Penn State to Hallowed Ground?

Take a trip in a time capsule with me

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl Classic-Memphis vs Penn State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Take a quick trip with me down memory lane, to the distant year 2019.

bad guy by Billie Eilish was the #1 song.

Avengers: Endgame was the #1 movie.

Penn State was the #10 team in the country.

Hey one of those sounds like modern day!

The Lions had just finished defeating Memphis 53-39 in the Cotton Bowl, securing their 11th win of the season - their third such season in 4 years.

Coming off that win, the Lions looked to contend for the playoffs in 2020. They returned their top running back (Journey Brown), their best defender (Micah Parsons), and their fresh-faced quarterback (Sean Clifford).

Penn State rode a consistent rushing attack and an aggressive defense to the heights of a New Year’s Six bowl game, coupled with competent quarterbacking.

Of course, from there, the wheels fell off. Journey Brown was forced to medically retire. COVID-19 struck, and Micah Parsons opted out of his final season at Penn State. The Big Ten lurched out of the gate, and the Lions got off to a historically bad 0-5 start, before finishing 4-5 on the year.

In 2021 the Lions were playing well, though cracks in the armor were showing before the fateful trip to Kinnick, where Clifford would get injured - and the lions would go on to lose 5 of their last 7 games.

Part of 2021’s failure had to do with the lack of a run game - the thing that had turned into such a strength for the 2019 team. Without a consistent rush to support the pass, Clifford began to play hero ball - and truthfully, that isn’t his strong suit.

Excellent game manager, superb teammate, future coach. But putting the entire offense on his back is not what Sean should be doing.

Which is why 2022 has been such a breath of fresh air. The run game is back. The defense is flying around the field. And Clifford is being asked to manage the game again, with great success.

Sure, the scoring could be even higher, and sure, there are occasional bad plays that lead to turnovers.

But as it stands right now, Clifford is posting his most accurate season ever, with his best quarterback rating since 2019. At his current rate he’ll come close to matching his passing TD output from 2019, with a much lower interception total.

The next three games will define Penn State’s season. Go 2-1 at worst, and another 11-win season is likely the outcome for 2022.

1-2 or (gasp) 0-3, and it will feel like 2021 redux.

Sean Clifford has led the Lions to great heights already in his career. Can he do it again, one last time?