Penn State Football

What Minnesota coach PJ Fleck said about Penn State ahead of Saturday’s game

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck shared some high praise for Penn State’s starting quarterback Tuesday, calling Sean Clifford “incredibly accurate” and “phenomenal.”

A quick glimpse at the stat sheet would back up Fleck’s assertion. The Ohio native is second in the Big Ten in passing yards (1,931), second in yards per attempt (8.9) and second in passing touchdowns (20).

“Their quarterback is phenomenal, playing at a high level,” Fleck said during his weekly press conference. “The one thing he does really well is if he doesn’t have his first, second, third read, he’s not afraid to pull the ball down and run. He runs like a tailback. He’s elusive, can run, has great vision.”

Fleck opened his press conference Tuesday with the news that he agreed to a seven-year extension through 2026, bringing his new salary to $4.6 million. After 12 minutes of discussing his new contract, one reporter asked Fleck if he could ask a Penn State question.

Fleck looked down and smiled: “I would love one. I would absolutely really love one; my next comment was, ‘On to Penn State.’ “

The head coach’s first non-contract question came about Clifford, who has thrown just three interceptions in 216 attempts. And Fleck didn’t shy away from praising the first-year starter.

“When you have that,” Fleck said, referring to Clifford’s versatility, “you have a guy who doesn’t just take sacks, nor does he throw a lot of incompletions or interceptions. He knows, ‘I can just pull it down and run, get the first down and keep the chains moving.’ He can reset the distance and go from there.

“Talented athlete, talented player. Weapons everywhere. I mean, everywhere.”

Clifford leads Penn State’s four-RB rotation with 77 carries and remains third on the team with 280 rushing yards and three rushing TDs. He and the No. 5 Nittany Lions will take on No. 13 Minnesota at noon Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Here’s everything Fleck said about Clifford and the Penn State Nittany Lions on Tuesday:

(On what he sees from Penn State QB Sean Clifford)

Incredibly accurate. Their quarterback is phenomenal, playing at a high level. The one thing he does really well is if he doesn’t have his first, second, third read, he’s not afraid to pull the ball down and run. He runs like a tailback. He’s elusive, can run, has great vision.

When you have that, you have a guy who doesn’t just take sacks, nor does he throw a lot of incompletions or interceptions. He knows, “I can just pull it down and run, get the first down and keep the chains moving.” He can reset the down and distance and go from there. Talented athlete, talented player. Weapons everywhere, I mean everywhere.

(On Penn State WR KJ Hamler and whether he reminds Fleck of Purdue’s Rondale Moore)

I’ve never coached Rondale Moore. I have said that publicly, he reminds you of a Rondale Moore, a Wan’Dale Robinson. The minute he touches the ball, he can change the game instantly. He is so explosive, so fast, elusive. He has great ball skills. He can play tailback, wide receiver. He can do everything.

Then they have a supporting cast around them. When you have one player that’s one thing, when you have multiple players that are really fast that’s another thing. They have multiple players that can really run. We’re talking about world-class sprinters on the outside. Their tight ends are very involved in the run game and pass game.

James Franklin has done a great job of recruiting. He’s a tremendous recruiter. You can see it all over that field, especially on the defensive line, and linebacker.

(On Penn State’s defensive line and the way it rotates)

The biggest thing is the defensive line, it’s very rare that you see this, right? This is a credit to James (Franklin), his whole staff. I think they do it better than 99 percent of what’s out there. They recruit really well, then they can also develop. Sometimes you get one or the other. They do it all.

Their defensive line -- they can all stop the run; they’re all pass-rushers. It’s very rare to have both combinations. You’re talking from the nose, five technique, three technique, whatever it is, they all can do both. You have two guys inside that can stop the run, pass-rushers on the outside. It isn’t the case. They can all do everything.

They have three or four guys behind those guys that can do the same thing. Incredible depth. When you look at their depth chart, every position, sophomores and freshmen right behind them. When those seniors graduate, they reload, they’re not rebuilding.

They’re a blue-blood program. They get the top recruits in the country. That doesn’t surprise you with James Franklin. Not only do they get the top, they get the top of the top because it’s James Franklin and his staff.

(On what it would mean to the program to beat a team like Penn State)

I think it’s a complete compliment to what James Franklin built at Penn State, how he was able to take over, build it from there, basically restoring the brand, right? Not only restoring the brand, taking it to a completely different level in modern football.

But I think any win you have at this point, no matter who it is against, it’s significant. You’re talking about your final four games. We know we’re playing ranked teams as we continue to go. We’re playing for three rivalry trophies. Our players know that.

It’s not just one game means more than the other. They all matter. It always goes back to Game 1. If we don’t win Game 4, this doesn’t matter. Don’t win Game 7, this doesn’t matter.

It’s hard to sit there and look at it, “Who are they? Where are they ranked?” I tell our players internally they have to think they’re ranked 1 with everything we do. We want to do our best, everything at an elite, championship level. Sooner or later you get to that point.

Again, Penn State is Penn State for a particular reason. We’re on our way to building that in terms of restoring our tradition from the past to the present. Again, if you start looking at it like it’s just that game, what that means, you put all your eggs in one basket. I don’t want them to ever think that way.

I want them to think in a one-game season. This one got you a chance to be this one. You’ve earned the right for a big game. No matter who it was against, you earned the right for a big game because of what you’ve done. The only way to continue to have that is keep having success in these big games, big moments. The pressure they have on themselves to play a top-five team in the country, that’s earned. Not just play them, because they’re on all of our schedules. But it means something, right? I think that’s really special.

Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.
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