Mid-season evaluation: Can Penn State survive without Sean Clifford?

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Penn State has reached the midway point of the season with a perfectly placed bye week in Week 7. What better way to spend time during the bye week than by beginning to assess everything that has happened thus far and determine where things go from here for the Nittany Lions?

And it feels appropriate that the mid-season evaluations begins with the biggest issue facing Penn State coming out of a tough loss at Iowa, and that is the quarterback situation. After a perfectly fine start to the season by a clearly much more confident Sean Clifford, his injury during the Iowa game and uncertainty for the immediate future has cast a much darker cloud over the passing game in Happy Valley. And with the results put on display against Iowa with Ta’Quan Roberson stepping in for the injured Clifford, there is rising doubt about just how effective the Penn State offense, and specifically the passing game, can be with a tough slate ahead of them in the second half.

Year-to-Date Summary

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 season was destined to be a Sean Clifford or bust type of season following the transfer of Will Levis to Kentucky (where he is enjoying life as the starter for the Wildcats, by the way). After coming up dry on the search for a transfer option in the offseason, Penn State decided to roll the dice with hopes riding on Clifford staying on the field. And for a while, that seemed to work just fine.

Under the coaching of new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich, Clifford significantly cut down on his bad judgments and unforced errors and began showing more patience and awareness. As such, Penn State’s offense became much more efficient and effective. Clifford managed to begin spreading the ball around without having to feel like every play had to be going through Jahan Dotson. Clifford’s ability to spread the ball to Parker Washignton and his tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson proved to be effective. Through the first five games of the season, Clifford was intercepted just three times, and only one was arguably considered an actual mistake by Clifford.

In his most recent game, Clifford overcame an early mistake against Iowa — an interception at the Penn State 8-yard line on the first offensive snap of the game for the Nittany Lions — to lead Penn State to two efficient touchdown drives in the first quarter against an Iowa defense that was allowing just over 12 points per game this season. Clifford’s first, and only, series in the second quarter resulted in a field goal to put Penn State up 17-3 at the time.

But that was the last we saw of Clifford. Clifford went to the Penn State locker room after that possession and did not return to the playing field.








Sean Clifford








Ta’Quan Roberson








Stats via CFBStats.com as of Oct. 11, 2021.

NEXT: Is the backup better than the starter? No.

In steps Ta’Quan Roberson

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest concerns with the passing game this season was not the lack of talent or potential of Penn State’s backup option, TaQuan Roberson, but the lack of experience. Although Penn State found a couple of games to get Roberson on the field in clean-up duty of lopsided games, Roberson was thrown into an unenvious situation on the road against No. 3 Iowa and the ball-hawking Hawkeye defense. The lack of experience shined brightly on the young quarterback and Penn State slowly saw their lead evaporate and turn into a loss with Roberson at the helm.

Placing blame on a backup quarterback can be easy to do but there were plenty of other factors that played into the result against Iowa. Regardless of the outcome against the Hawkeyes, the question is now whether or not Penn State will be able to trust Roberson to lead the offense in a key spot again in 2021.

But first there is a more important question to ask.

Will Clifford be back?

Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

It may have been a small sample size in the worst possible scenario, but the evidence this season is backing up the idea that Penn State’s success this season will ride on the arm of Sean Clifford. If Clifford is able to return after the bye week against Illinois, Penn State should get right back on track and remain a viable contender in the Big Ten East Division race with Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State.

But if Penn State has to rely on Roberson at the quarterback situation, the realistic expectations may be quickly revised. How much we learn about Clifford’s status is not likely to shed much light because James Franklin is not one to share much information with regard to injure players.

There is a path to success if Penn State has to ride with Roberson. Having a bye week after the Iowa game gives Yurcich more time to more properly prepare Roberson for running with the first-team offense if needed, and a home game against Illinois should provide a better chance to get in a groove than being thrown into a road situation midway through a game against Iowa.

NEXT: Is there a Plan C?

Will we see Christian Veilleux?

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

There is a third option on the table, should franklin decide he needs to use it. That would be Christian Veilleux. The true freshman from the Class of 2021 has been on the travel roster but has yet to appear in a game for Penn State. Given the fact that Veilleux did not play football during the 2020 season (his school did not play due to the COVID pandemic), it makes plenty of sense to refrain from using him as much as possible.

But if Clifford is out for an extended period of time and Roberson has struggles as he did against Iowa, then the emergency glass may be broken and Veilleux may have to be inserted just to see what could happen. The concern is the spot you would have to throw him in. With some of the games remaining, Penn State could risk throwing another young and inexperienced quarterback into a similar situation Roberson was used against Iowa. On the road against Ohio State? That doesn’t sound like a great situation.

So don’t count on Penn State getting this desperate too quickly, but don’t rule out the possibility either.

Overall mid-season thoughts

Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP

Penn State’s passing game isn’t necessarily the best in the Big Ten, or the country, but it is good enough to make Penn State a serious contender in the Big Ten…. if Sean Clifford is healthy. Clifford has shown plenty of signs of improvement this season even with a pair of interceptions against Iowa in his most recent outing.

Maybe Penn State can end up doing some things if Roberson is needed for more of a role, but the way Clifford has played this season makes Penn State that much more of a threat to Ohio State (and Michigan and Michigan State) in the Big Ten East race. And if he is healthy for a potential rematch against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, you should like Penn State’s chances.

Overall grade: B+

Roberson’s poor appearance as a backup brings this down just a hair. Otherwise, Penn State’s quarterback evaluation would earn high marks midway through the season.

Needs improvement: Whoever is the quarterback moving forward will have to do a better job of cutting down on turnovers. Clifford had been intercepted three times in his last two games, and Roberson was picked off twice by Iowa.

Coaching assessment: B+

Mike Yurcich gets a B+ here as well, if only because not having Roberson in a better spot to succeed in his backup role against Iowa brings the grade down a bit. Clifford was having his finest season under Yurcich, and hopefully, Penn State gets to see that continue.

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