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‘The ball is the program’: Clifford must protect ball and make plays downfield vs. Buckeyes

Photo by Penn State Athletics

Sean Clifford had a strong second half at Indiana, and his efforts nearly helped produce a Penn State win.

But Clifford’s struggles in the first half were as big of a reason as any for why the Nittany Lions lost. He threw two bad interceptions that led directly to 10 points for the Hoosiers.

Clifford had this great line Wednesday when discussing his play.

“We stress all the time, the ball is the program,” he said.

That’s absolutely right.

The ball is the program.

And Clifford has to protect the ball better if Penn State is to have any chance of beating Ohio State on Saturday.

Clifford was knocked out of last year’s game at Ohio State in the third quarter with a right leg injury, suffered when he was hit on a throw. The Lions, with backup QB Will Levis, managed to hang around against the No. 2 Buckeyes before losing, 28-17.

Clifford was 10-of-17 but threw for just 71 yards against the Buckeyes before getting hurt. Levis threw for 57 yards, so PSU totaled only 128 through the air.

With the top two running backs out of action and the Lions having to rely on sophomore Devyn Ford and two freshmen out of the backfield, there’s a good chance PSU won’t be able to run the ball that well against Ohio State on Saturday.

Clifford ran for 119 yards against Indiana, but it seems incredibly unlikely that he can do that against the Buckeyes.

If PSU’s offense is going to cause damage, Clifford is going to have to get the job done through the air.

He’ll have to be efficient and effective and cannot make the kind of mistakes he made at Indiana.

“The one thing that I kind of saw in my game was, I thought that I played well,” he said of the Hoosiers contest. “But the mistakes that I made, it wasn’t just like a minor mistake, it was the critical errors.”

Clifford went on to add: “It was very evident after watching the tape how much (the interceptions) swung momentum, and how much it kind of made us beat ourselves. … So that’s on me, something I’m going to grow off of.”

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One thing Penn State did not do a good job of against the Hoosiers was taking shots down the field. Clifford hit Jahan Dotson on a 60-yard TD pass, but that was really the only deep ball the QB threw.

Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca must put Clifford in position to take more shots downfield if the Lions are to keep the Buckeyes honest and prevent them from loading up the box all night with run stuffers and pass rushers.

“It’s just working a little bit harder on making sure that when we have our shots, we take them,” Clifford said. “And make sure that we’re we’re accurate with it.”

A big concern, however, is whether the Lions have good enough receivers to beat the Buckeye defensive backs and get open downfield.

Dotson did that against Indiana on one play, and earlier this week, James Franklin talked about how he wants Dotson to be “the guy” at the receiver spot.

Clifford said he has confidence in his wide receivers, even though most of them haven’t produced a whole lot in their college careers.

On Dotson, Clifford said, “(He) has experience, it’s easier to get him the ball early just because he knows what a game is like, he’s not feeling it out.”

Clifford said freshman Parker Washington “created some space, he had a good touchdown.”

The Lions are expected to have Cam Sullivan-Brown in action this week. He missed the Indiana game with an undisclosed injury.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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