Sean Clifford walked toward the Penn State tunnel after another Nittany Lions’ victory. He grabbed the rope attached to the team’s victory bell and violently swung it three times before pumping his fist as he walked through the tunnel.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback had plenty to celebrate. He and the Penn State offense just scored 35 points in a lopsided win the week after putting up 59 points. Clifford had just thrown for 264 yards and three touchdowns in the 35-7 win over Purdue, while rushing for another touchdown. While Clifford was happy to celebrate with his teammates, he knew exactly where he needed to improve heading into next week.
The quarterback said some of his play didn’t meet the high standards he set, and he was vocal about it after the game, criticizing himself for his biggest mistake — an interception — and the offense’s inability to score in the third quarter.
“I can improve (on deep throws),” he said. “That interception can’t happen.”
He continued: “We kind of stalled out. Not because we weren’t executing, but because we weren’t finishing and that’s on me and that’s on everybody from the top, down. ... We stalled out in the third quarter and that’s unacceptable.”
Clifford said that by the end of the game, he was confident his offense is heading in the right direction, despite not scoring in the third quarter after lighting up the Boilermakers for 28 points in the first half. And now, he says, he know where to look to prevent that type of slump from happening again.
“We did get out of that slump in the end,” he said. “The third quarter is not acceptable and that’s not to the standard, but in the fourth quarter we really did get back to how we were (in the first half). That’s where we’ve got to look. What did we do in that fourth quarter to make that jump?... I think that’s where we’re going to make significant strides and start to be an elite offense.”
The confidence of a “elite” quarterback exuded from Clifford as he spoke to the media. He called his playmakers “the best in the country,” and reiterated his belief in his team’s ability to be successful due to the hard work each player puts into each game and practice.
“I firmly believe that we are the hardest-working team in America right now. From top to bottom. From coaching staff to trainers. I’m not even trying to be (Penn State head) Coach (James) Franklin right now,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just really excited with where we’re at. We’re in a very good spot and I’m very excited to be a part of this team.”
Clifford’s teammates have taken notice of their signal-caller’s increased confidence, and the confidence he has in those around him.
“He’s been a lot more confident,” starting offensive guard Steven Gonzalez said. “He’s bringing a lot of energy, trying to be a leader, and he’s doing a really good job of that. He’s been making plays.”
Added wide receiver Jahan Dotson: “His confidence is gaining each week. He’s believing in us and we’re making plays. Me, K.J. (Hamler), and all of the guys on the outside, we’re all making plays. So he’s trusting us that we’ll make the play for him and he doesn’t have to do much, just get us the ball.”
Clifford has made sure to back up that confidence with work put in behind the scenes.
Dotson caught a pass in the middle of the field that he broke for a 72-yard touchdown reception with just over five minutes left in the first quarter. He said Clifford asked him to stay after practice during the week to work on the exact route, and the extra effort paid off for both of them.
“He’s a great leader for us,” Dotson said. “On our off days he’s coming in and asking us to watch film and run routes. It’s pretty cool. That touchdown I scored on, I ran that route after practice with Sean because he asked me and wanted to get some more reps.”
Dotson isn’t the only wide receiver Clifford asks to put extra work in after practice. Redshirt sophomore K.J. Hamler said Clifford does the same for him, and sees the improvements his classmate is making in his first season as a starter.
“He’s getting more confident with each game,” Hamler said. “He’s getting more relaxed. He sees stuff differently, from coverages to matchups. Cliff is becoming more of a leader each and every week. He always calls me in for film and things of that nature, doing extra stuff.”
Clifford and his offense are about to be put to the test to see how good they really are, as they enter a three-game stretch against three ranked opponents. The Nittany Lions will travel to Iowa City next week to take on No. 14 Iowa in a night game in Kinnick Stadium. They’ll follow that up with a home game against No. 19 Michigan, and a trip to East Lansing to face No. 25 Michigan State the next week.
With the win over Purdue in the rear-view, Clifford feels good about where his team is at, and is ready to move forward with his preparation for the Hawkeyes.
“We need to keep on improving,” he said. “I don’t think the next games being big games (matters). It’s all 1-0 for us. It’s not even lip service anymore. It really is 1-0. That’s my mindset. That’s our mindset. We’re glad that we got the win this week, we’re glad that we’re 5-0, and next week we’re going to go 6-0. That’s our mentality.”