Coming into the 2021 season, there were plenty of reasons for optimism about the hiring of Mike Yurcich given his track record of success at his former stops. However, there were also reasons for concern. How would the team respond to learning and running its third offense in three years? Would the offensive personnel fit what Yurcich wanted to do? And most importantly, would Yurcich be able to maximize Sean Clifford's talent and take advantage of some loaded skill position rooms?
On Saturday night with the Whiteout surrounding them, these two shined brighter than any of the cell phone flashlights or Beaver Stadium fireworks in the central Pennsylvania night. With a marquee opponent on the opposite sideline and a chance to score a win for their team and the conference, the Yurcich and Clifford combination took center stage and did not disappoint.
I could lay out the raw numbers for you and end this story right here. Only four incompletions on the way to a 28/32 night passing. 280 passing yards. 2 touchdowns. All against what is rated as the No. 13 defense in the country by SP+. But the performance of these two goes deeper than the surface level numbers. At no point did Clifford, who has struggled throughout his Penn State career with happy feet inside the pocket, look rattled. We heard the comments from him from the preseason about being the most confident quarterback in the country, and after Saturday night it would be hard to argue with him.
Even he acknowledged after the game how relaxed he felt despite the pressure that the Whiteout brings with it.
"It was probably the calmest I've ever been in a game, to be honest with you," Clifford said in his post-game talk with the media. "I went in, and from the first snap, I was seeing everything so clearly tonight."
While the first drive of the night for the offense may have ended in a turnover on downs as Clifford came up short on the quarterback-keeper, the calmness that he spoke of was easy to see, completing four of his first five throws on the night. And true to form so far this season, while the throws were good ones, the schemes and routes cooked up by Yurcich (and wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield) gave the quarterback plenty of targets to find.
"I think that comes with how Coach Yurcich has developed me and really pushed me every single day and not letting me slip through the cracks on anything."
The total negation of the Tiger defensive line by the Lion offensive line certainly helped things, but this is a back-seven manned by several future professionals. Clifford responded with perhaps his most impressive performance of his career, and when factoring in the opponent, absolutely the best. The attention to detail in the partnership between the Penn State quarterback and offensive coordinator has been evident through all three games of the season but found a new level on Saturday night.
|Year||Opponents||Passing||PAssing %||PAssing Yards||TD/INT|
Better efficiency in his third year as a full-time starter was probably expected for Clifford, but the change we've seen to this point has been drastic. Not to mention that he's doing it against arguably the two best defenses (Wisconsin and Auburn) that he's ever faced. A lot of that is to his credit, with his decision-making being key. Yurcich has created an offense that is perfectly tailored to help his quarterback shine, however. It's no wonder that highly-touted quarterbacks in future recruiting classes are suddenly looking at Happy Valley as a future home.
The passing chart will reveal even more about this Auburn performance for Clifford (look for that on Tuesday) but Saturday night was a perfect confluence of player ability and play-caller scheme. It's not an accident that it led to a win.