Clifford goes out the way he dreams

Nov. 27—A few days before he sprinted into Beaver Stadium for the final time, before he spent the pregame fighting off tears, and the pregame locker room speeches trying to get locked in before taking the field and fighting off tears again, I asked Sean Clifford a question about growing.

Whatever you think of him as a quarterback, he's a 24-year-old who has been committed to or playing quarterback for Penn State for a third of his life. In 2017, he ran through the same tunnel he ran through Saturday for the first time, his whole college career ahead of him. And now, the part where he gets to call Beaver Stadium his home turf is over.

There have been ups.

There have been downs.

There have been cheers.

There have been boos.

And who could have been prepared for the extremes of all of what he experienced as the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback?

Certainly not that kid who ran out of the tunnel for the first time, six years ago.

So what advice would Sean Clifford, vintage 2022, give to Sean Clifford, circa 2017?

"Just, 'Be you.'" he said.

One of the most statistically successful careers among any Penn State quarterback is over. So is the nightmare of so many Nittany Lions fans who wanted to see him benched long ago. Clifford's career at Beaver Stadium ended Saturday night as well as it conceivably could have. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-16 win over Michigan State that capped the Lions' first 10-win regular season since 2019.

The last pass he threw at home: A perfectly lofted 34-yard strike to a sprinting receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a touchdown.

He walked away as Penn State's all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns and completions. No Penn State quarterback — not Kerry Collins or Todd Blackledge or Trace McSorley or Chuck Fusina — completed a higher percentage of his throws than Clifford did.

In Penn State's biggest moments, his teams tended to come up short. That's true. But this is a team game, too. And Clifford bailed his team out of a lot of tough spots.

He did so Saturday.

Penn State actually found itself in some unexpected trouble in the second half against a Spartans team that played harder than many imagined it would, with a season of turmoil so close to its finish. The Lions relied on their running game to build a 14-3 halftime lead. But Michigan State's defense rallied to hold freshmen running backs Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton to minus-4 yards rushing in the third quarter, and the Spartans rallied to get back within 21-16 with 10 minutes to go.

If the Lions were going to pull away, Clifford would need to play well down the stretch.

And, he did.

He threw for 81 yards in the fourth quarter, and went 5 for 5 through the air. On a gutsy decision on fourth-and-1 to go for it from the Michigan State 11, he read the defense, made the proper adjustment, and threw a swing pass to Singleton that turned into an 11-yard touchdown.

Big moment. And, it won Penn State the game.

"Cliff is just a great person to have in the program," tight end Tyler Warren said. "A lot of people look up to him. He's got a lot of experience, and for him to go out that way, it was really important for us, I think, as a team."

In baseball, they'd call him a locker room guy. Several teammates were asked this season what his "superpower" is as a quarterback, and to a man, they mostly gave a different description of the same answer. He's a guy who relates to players, who sets an example for veterans and youngsters alike, a quarterback who puts the work in required to be great.

Really, the superpower is not being a quarterback; It's being a teammate. That's a good part of the reason why Clifford has been a difficult player for fans to embrace. Ultimately, you're judged on wins and losses, valued by statistics first. We're most impressed by the big, showy things. But this is a program close to where it wants to be because it had a player like Clifford to lead the way.

Limited as he might be athletically. Unpredictable as he might have been in the biggest moments on the field. He was a consistent factor on the practice field and in the locker room, a rare type of player the whole locker room rallied around. And that consistency, Clifford said, is what he'd tell his younger self to hold tight.

"That's what's been the most helpful and the most pivotal point to my success so far; It's because I haven't changed as a person," he said. "I've developed new habits and new hobbies to be able to become a better player and a better person. But at the same time, the moral compass, the things I believe in — hard work, dedication, sacrifice — those core values that Coach Franklin preaches and that I committed to when I was younger, that hasn't changed.

"There are going to be hardships. There are going to be trials and tribulations, but at the same time it's the man in the mirror, the person you look at every night, who you need to be happy with. For me, it's all about, 'Can I lay my head on the pillow and know I'm doing right and that I'm working the hardest I can?'"

There are no regrets with Sean Clifford. Not the Ohio State turnovers the last few seasons. Not the Minnesota game. Not any of it.

"People are going to be critical, but that's because this place is so special," Clifford said Saturday. "They demand excellence and they demand the best, which is awesome. And that's what this place should be. They should want to win every game. They should want to be elite, because that's what this program deserves. Am I bummed that I couldn't get it done all the way to that point? Yeah. But, man, what a journey it was. I wouldn't give up the memories that I have with the teammates that I have had for anything."

That helps him sleep at night, and while fans might not be thrilled that he didn't get Penn State over the top, there's a fact that can't be ignored: He set a standard for work and belief that Penn State will need if it ever wants to get there.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @PennStateTT.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @PennStateTT.