Penn State defeated Pac-12 Champion Utah 35-21 in the 109th Rose Bowl to secure their first 11-win season since 2019.
And they did it with Sean Clifford at the helm for his final collegiate football game.
Sean’s college career can be called nothing short of remarkable, but not just because of his performance on the field.
Let’s run it back.
2019 - A Bright Future
With the departure of Trace McSorley to the NFL, redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford took over the quarterback position, and put on a show. With Ricky Rahne as the offensive coordinator, the Lions beat everyone in front of them, including Michigan, rising to #5 in the country when a road trip to Minnesota tripped them up. A failed comeback later, and another loss to Ohio State put the Lions at 10-2, and a pairing with Memphis and their high-powered offense in the Cotton Bowl. The result? A 53-39 beating that was nowhere near as close as the score portrays.
Clifford finished the year with a 59.2% completion percentage, 23 TDs and 7 INTs, plus 402 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs.
2020 - COVID
The Lions ended the 2019 season with serious hype about a potential run at the playoffs. Micah Parsons was the best defensive player in the country, and Journey Brown had exploded in the Cotton Bowl, setting up a one-two punch on both sides of the ball.
Then COVID hit. The season was first canceled, then delayed, then canceled, then finally started. Micah Parsons opted out of the season due to the health risks. Journey Brown was diagnosed with a medical condition and was forced to retire from the sport of football. New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca brought his ball-control offense over from Minnesota.
The Lions started the season a historic 0-5, including losses to Indiana, Maryland, and Iowa. Sean Clifford was benched at one point in favor of Will Levis, who was benched a week later with the reins returning to Clifford’s hand. The team ended the season 4-5 with another win over Michigan, but opted out of a bowl game and ended with a losing record for the first time since 2004.
Clifford improved to 60.6% completion percentage, but managed just 16 TDs and 9 INTs, though was also the team’s leading rusher with 335 rushing yards and 3 rushing TDs.
2021 - Rollercoaster
The Lions entered 2021 an enigma - were they 2019 good? Was 2020 a fluky down year? Another new offensive coordinator joined the program in Mike Yurcich. Penn State went on a 5-0 tear to start the season, rising all the way to #4 in the AP Poll, and looking very seriously like a team that could challenge for the playoffs (albeit one that was still seriously struggling to run the ball) when they took a trip to Iowa City.
The Lions went up 17-3 on the #3 Hawkeyes when Clifford took an awkward hit. He would be knocked out of the game, and backup Ta’Quan Roberson was simply not prepared for the Iowa defense and Kinnick’s voodoo, and the Lions fell 23-20. From there, the team - and Clifford - was simply not the same. With an injured QB and no effective run game to speak of, the Lions tumbled to a 7-6 record, including a 9-OT loss to Illinois, and finally a 24-10 loss to Arkansas. Strangely, though, the Lions were competitive in their losses to Michigan (who would make the playoffs), Ohio State (who would go on to the Rose Bowl) and Michigan State (who would go on to the Peach Bowl).
Clifford again improved his completion percentage to 61.0%, while bumping up his TDs to 21 and lowering his INTs to 8, but only contributed 163 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs.
2022 - The Final Curtain
Given the previous two seasons, the Lions started the 2022 campaign unranked for the first time since 2016. But for the first time in his career as starter, Clifford had the same offensive coordinator for 2 years in a row, and the offense began to click. A shaky (but ultimately strong) win over Purdue to start the season set up the Lions well through week 5, including a move into the top 10. Though they were competitive with Michigan through the first 3 quarters, explosive plays ultimately did them in. A few weeks later, the team held a fourth quarter lead over Ohio State before explosive plays ultimately did them in.
Besides those two losses - to two teams who would go on to the playoffs - the Lions had their way with the rest of their schedule, with an average game score of 38-13. For their troubles, they were rewarded with a Rose Bowl appearance - their first since 2016 - against Pac-12 Champion Utah, fresh off a resounding victory over USC.
In his final collegiate game, Sean put on a master class. He completed 76% of his passes for 279 yards and 2 TDs, throwing into tight windows, and constantly keeping the Utah defense guessing; his hurry up snap of the ball in the second quarter led directly to the Utes being out of position and springing Nicholas Singleton for an 87-yard TD run.
Clifford finished the year with his best showing since 2019, at 64.4% completion percentage, 24 TDs and 7 INTs, plus 176 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs.
On his career, Sean holds the Penn State record for completion percentage, completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passing attempts. Some of those records are longevity records, but I say there’s something to be said for durability and longevity, especially given how his career has been affected by injury.
Clifford was, at times, inconsistent. He’d make a NFL-caliber throw one play, then toss a lame duck off his back foot the next for an interception. Read options were sometimes misread, leading to blown up plays.
But no matter what, he always rebounded. He always came back. He fought through injury, inconsistent play, multiple offensive coordinators, offensive lines that couldn’t block for him or the running backs, and incessant calls by fans for him to be benched.
And he never complained. Not once. He took every lump and bump, every high and low, all of it in stride on his way to the record books.
Yes, there were times - I’m sure you knew - when he bit off more than he could chew. But through it all, when there was doubt, he ate it up and spit it out. He faced it all, and he stood tall.
He did it his way.