Welcome to the 2021 edition of the Sean Clifford passing chart. Each week we'll break down Clifford's passing performance as well as highlight a few key plays, good and bad. Enjoy!
Before the game, I said in my pregame video on the Roar Lions Roar Facebook page that one of the keys for the Penn State offense would be to be fearless with the Whiteout crowd around them and to not be afraid to make tough throws and big plays. It was clear right from the get-go that Mike Yurcich was going to let his quarterback dictate the course of the game with his arm, and that's exactly what he did to start this one (and some brilliant play-calling by Yurcich sure helped).
All the Time in the World
One of the biggest issues with the 2020 offense was the inability to keep the pocket clean for Sean Clifford. As a result, the quarterback's footwork regressed and his internal clock sped up. Through the first two games, this seemed like less of an issue, but it didn't seem like the problem had necessarily been solved. Against Auburn, however, the offensive line showed up in a big way in pass protection and Clifford showed his growth and his poise by taking advantage of it.
There are a few more clips of his movement in the pocket from the second half, but it was easy to sense Clifford's calmness in these moments. This is trust between a quarterback and his offensive line.
Same Looks, New Wrinkles
Perhaps the most exciting part of the Mike Yurcich offense to this point is his ability to truly confuse defenses. We've seen Penn State use a number of different formations to this point, but what makes this group potentially very special is how they seem to use those formations in different ways every week. This time, we saw Yurcich and Clifford take advantage of the fact that Auburn knew getting the ball out quickly to the receivers was an emphasis in order to run tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson freely down the field. But those plays happened from the same formations we've seen through the first two weeks, making it incredibly difficult to stop.
More than any other game so far, we saw Clifford use the aggressiveness of the opposing linebackers to suck them in on run fakes and then hit his receivers right over their heads in the middle of the field. This is the only element of the passing attack that had really been missing, and it showed up in a big way on Saturday.
Of course, Clifford won't be happy that he threw a pick, but the only issue with the throw was that it wasn't far enough to the outside where his receiver had a chance at it. This is understandable because he got DRILLED on the play. But as far as the outcome, throwing the pass was the better option than taking the sack. In fact, it forced Auburn to kneel down right in front of its own end zone, and I would have liked to see Franklin use his timeouts and force Bo Nix to keep the ball out of the end zone so close to the goal line. So all in all, sad that the turnover was added to the stat line, but very much not a big deal.
A Perfect Half
The chart shows that the throws were mostly easy ones for Clifford, but going 12/12 in a half against a top-tier, SEC defense is no joke. It may not have been a prolific half for the quarterback, but it was a wildly impressive one. This throw, in particular, caught my attention as Clifford did a great job selling the run fake before delivering a slightly off-target, but still very catchable ball. Despite the fact that it whizzed right over the heads of the linebackers, none of them ever had a chance to deflect it.
Signs of Growth
One of my favorite plays of the night from Clifford was one that most fans will remember for coming up short of the line to gain and directly preceding the first-down-not-a-first-down for PJ Mustipher on the fake punt. Clifford sends Parker Washington in motion which allows him to see that Auburn is clearly in a zone coverage look, before firing a strike to the slot receiver who nearly gets it past the sticks for a first down.
I love this play so much because it shows Clifford's growth in diagnosing a defense and knowing that there is no chance Washington isn't open on the play. He knows that because it is a very well-designed play from Yurcich, with Washington delaying his route for just a moment while Jahan Dotson and Tyler Warren clear defenders out of the zone. Had Washington immediately turned and dove forward he may have even picked this one up. Awesome, simple play that shows the intelligence of the quarterback and the coordinator.
More Pocket Presence
The great pocket presence shown by Clifford continued in the second half, though we got to see him operate under a little more duress in the second frame. On this throw to Washington for a first down, Clifford hangs in the pocket as long as he can, waiting for something to open up over the middle. When he finally does bail, he keeps his eyes downfield, looking for his target.
While on the run, he delivers a ball that is low and causes Washington to go into a slide, but also one that only his player can get to.
Clifford and his coaches are going to have a fun time watching this one back in the film room.