Penn State Football

How Penn State’s sophomore QB Sean Clifford’s leadership shone through adversity against Buffalo

Sean Clifford, who could be seen nervously shaking on the sideline during his first collegiate start last week, admitted that nerves had gotten the best of him during the first couple plays against Idaho.

This week? Not so much. The redshirt sophomore quarterback said he was calm and ready heading into Penn State’s 45-13 Week 2 win over Buffalo.

“I felt a lot more comfortable,” Clifford said after the game. “We came out a little bit faster.”

The quarterback’s composure — even when his team trailed 10-7 at the half — didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates. Starting left guard Steven Gonzalez said there was a big difference between Clifford last week and Clifford this week.

“I think he was pretty poised,” Gonzalez said. “I think he was well composed in the pocket. He did a really good job. Obviously in the first game he had some nerves, but I think he kind of shook it out.”

Added tarting tight end Pat Freiermuth: “He just seemed more energetic and more confident. I think he got the initial nerves out starting his first game. I think he’s ready to go now.”

Even without nerves, Clifford struggled to get the offense going in the first half. The Penn State offense only saw the field for 20 plays in the first 30 minutes of game time, and only gained 82 yards on those 20 plays. That led to a massive time of possession disparity in the first half, with Buffalo controlling the ball for 21:28 and Penn State for 8:32.

The redshirt sophomore completed 6-of-8 passes in that time, but only compiled 59 yards in the half. The offense didn’t have any answers for the Bulls until halftime rolled around.

After the half, with his team down by 3, is when Clifford’s teammates said his energy and confidence shone the most. While many of his teammates were down — some of the underclassmen even staring at their feet in disappointment in the locker room — Clifford stepped into his position as an offensive leader, and helped set the tone for the second-half turnaround.

“All of the offensive leaders were just like, ‘Hey we’ve got to pick this up,’” Gonzalez said.

Clifford said he just spoke his mind, something he said he’s never afraid to do.

“I’ve always been a guy that will be more vocal,” he said. “If I feel like something needs to be said, I’m going to say it. My guys really responded well. I just saw some things that needed to be said. I’m (happy) with how our team responded.”

The pep talk must have worked, because after the half, Clifford and the Nittany Lion offense stepped up in a big way. Clifford completed 8-of-9 passes in the third quarter for 148 yards and two touchdowns. By the end of the quarter, the Nittany Lions had gone from a three-point deficit to a 22-point lead.

Freiermuth, who had a big part in that 25-point swing with two touchdown receptions, noticed a change in Clifford in the second half.

“I think Cliff just got back to his game and just started playing confidently,” he said. “All of the offense was a little rusty in the beginning. I think we just kind of settled down at halftime.”

Senior cornerback John Reid, who had an interception return for a touchdown that sparked the third-quarter run, said he wasn’t surprised that Clifford was able to get the offense back on track.

“Cliff is the ultimate competitor. I knew that, coming out in the second half, he was going to turn it around,” Reid said. “He has really good composure. He’s not getting riled up. He knows he can make all of the throws, he knows he can make the plays. He knows he has to execute and that’s what he did in the second half.”

Part of Clifford’s excellent third quarter was a 58-yard run to get the team to the 2-yard line that allowed freshman running back Noah Cain to score the following play on a run. Gonzalez said he knew Clifford was fast, but even he was surprised by the run — 5 yards longer than predecessor Trace McSorley’s career long.

“He was moving,” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “He’s made some improvements running. We could tell in summer workouts that he was moving. I just happened to see him outrunning DBs and I was like ‘whoa.’ I was just trying to chase down the ball, just trying to catch up.”

Even with the team’s struggles to stay on the field in the first half, Clifford said he never got frustrated, and the team’s resiliency gave him confidence going into the rest of the season.

“That’s just part of the game,” he said. “Some things aren’t going to go your way. That’s why football is such a great game, at least for me. That’s why I love this game. You fight through adversity, whether that be them giving you a different look, or a bad first half, which we had. I think we learned a lot about our team and I’m really proud of our guys.”

Jon Sauber earned his B.A. in digital and print journalism from Penn State and his M.A. in sports journalism from IUPUI. His previous stops include jobs at The Indianapolis Star, the NCAA, and Rivals.