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Clifford or bust: Should PSU look for QB in portal?

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Sean Clifford

If you crunch the numbers — all the numbers — they lead to one pretty clear conclusion: Sean Clifford is an average quarterback. That may sound like a slight to Clifford, but again, the numbers don’t lie.

I did a deep dive into the NCAA stats database for Clifford over the past two seasons, and we’ll get to all those in a moment.

The reason for the deep dive was to try and answer this question: Should Penn State go out and try to find a better quarterback in the transfer portal this offseason, and what exactly would constitute said “better quarterback?”

Before you can see about finding someone better, you have to first know what you already have. And in Clifford next season, Penn State will have a senior quarterback who has started a lot of games, has earned the respect of his teammates, had one good season with a Cotton Bowl victory and one bad season where he was benched once and the team finished 4-5.

Just how good of a quarterback is Sean Clifford? How reliable is he? How much can this PSU program depend on him next season, when the schedule is really tough to start off with, and that’s before the Lions even get into the Big Ten East slate?

Judging from merely the eye test this season, Clifford was really bad early on, then got better at the end of the year. He did not look sharp at the start of games and threw too many bad passes, several of which were intercepted and put PSU behind the 8 ball with early deficits. He finished with nine interceptions in nine games.

Generally speaking, Clifford played better in the second half of games early on. And he played better the second half of the season, after he admitted he had been trying to do too much and his offensive coordinator had said he was trying to be too perfect.

The eye test tells one side of the story. And while valuable, especially to fans, that is not as important as the cold, hard numbers.

OK, so these are the numbers.

First, Clifford finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency this season at 137.4. The top three were Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr., Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa. For the record, Fields and Tagovailoa both transferred to their current schools from elsewhere.

These wide-ranging and revealing numbers show where Clifford ranked nationally in the NCAA statistics in each category this season:

2020 statistics

Passing efficiency: 50th (137.4)

Points responsible for: 40th (118)

Points responsible for per game: 45th (13.1)

TD passes: 34th (16)

Passing yards: 48th (1,883)

Passing yards per game: 56th (209.2)

Pass yards per completion: 59th (12.39)

Completion percentage: 63rd (60.6)

Total offense: 43rd (246.4)

For comparison, these were Clifford’s national rankings in 2019, when the QB led Penn State to an 11-2 record and victory in the Cotton Bowl.

Passing efficiency: 27th (148.5)

Points responsible for: 31st (172)

Points responsible for per game: 29th (14.3)

TD passes: 32nd (23)

Passing yards: 58th (2,654)

Passing yards per game: 55th (221.2)

Pass yards per completion: 18th (14.04)

Completion percentage: 75th (59.2)

Total offense: 43rd (254.7)

As you can see below, Clifford stayed the same in total offense and improved in passing yards and completion percentage, but dropped off nationally in every other category from 2019 to this season.

Passing efficiency: 27th to 50th

Points responsible for: 31st to 40th

Points responsible for per game: 29th to 45th

TD passes: 32nd to 34th

Passing yards: 58th to 48th

Passing yards per game: 55th to 56th

Pass yards per completion: 18th to 59th

Completion percentage: 75th to 63rd

Total offense: 43rd to 43rd

One other thing not shown in those stats is this: Clifford has proven to be a pretty decent running quarterback in PSU’s RPO system. He rushed for 335 yards this season and 402 last year, so he knows how to make plays with his legs when he has to.

You can sift through the transfer portal for hours looking at every quarterback — how he did at his previous school, what his stats were, how he played in big games and who he lost to. You also can research why he left that school, whether it’s because he was beaten out by someone else, struggled when he got his chance, didn’t like the situation, got in trouble or whatever.

Whew! That’s a hell of a lot of work. I know, because I did it with about 10 QBs currently in the portal, the ones I thought potentially could be in Penn State’s radar to look at as possibilities to bring in to compete with Clifford.

After spending a couple of hours doing that, I came to this conclusion: There’s not a single quarterback remaining in the portal that Penn State could target and say, without a doubt, that he’s a better option going into next season than Clifford.

You can check the portal for yourself here.

Yes, there are some quality prospects in the portal, but keep in mind, they all come with some degree of baggage of their own. To try and bring one of them in to compete with a senior quarterback who knows Penn State’s offense inside and out would seem like a futile effort, in all honesty, and could only further muddy the quarterback situation.

Penn State still has Will Levis, although we have no idea if he’s a legit quarterback or just a running back who takes snaps. There’s also Ta’Quan Roberson, a former 4-star recruit who was a redshirt freshman this season, and some people believe he should be the one to get an opportunity to play next season if Clifford does not perform well.

So, after crunching all of Clifford’s numbers, looking at the QBs out there in the portal and considering what Penn State already has on its roster, this is my conclusion:

Sean Clifford is an average quarterback, but he is best suited to be Penn State’s starting quarterback next season.


BY THE WAY: If you love numbers and want to see even more, these are Sean Clifford’s national rankings when it comes to career statistics.

Total offense yards per play: 18th (6.86)

Passing efficiency: 23rd (146.76)

Total offense plays per game: 29th (31.88)

Total offense per game: 40th (218.6)

Total TDs responsible for: 43rd (49)

Interceptions thrown: 46th (16)

Total offense: 46th (5,466)

Passes per game: 52nd (23.08)

Passing attempts: 54th (577)

Total plays: 54th (797)

Passing completions: 55th (346)

Rushes per game: 106th (8.8)

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