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Saunders: Movie-Script Return from Injury Rarely Works out in Real Life

Photo by Penn State Athletics: QB Sean Clifford

There was quite a stir on social media on Saturday as the Penn State mystery at quarterback started to reveal itself before the Lions’ game against Illinois at Beaver Stadium.

First, starter Sean Clifford, who left the team’s loss at Iowa two Saturdays previous with an injury, took part in warmups, along with presumed starter Ta’Quan Roberson and third-stringer Christian Veilleux.

Then, he was announced on the scoreboard as the team’s starting quarterback and finally, the red-haired passer took to the field with the Lions’ offense’s first series.

It’s a movie-script sequence, as the injured starter that nobody expects to be there comes out from behind the curtain and proves his toughness and mettle by gutting out a performance.

Daniel LaRusso is going to fight?

That’s the kind of thing we — speaking as a fan of the game and a member of the media — lionize about sports in general and football in particular. We laud the toughness that it takes to play through an injury and the mindset that if a player can play, he or she should be playing.

But the cold facts of the matter are that injured players generally don’t play very well. It was pretty clear early into Saturday’s game against Illinois that Clifford was not his usual self. He was sacked four times and ran five times for a net loss of 28 yards, only the second time in his career that Clifford failed to gain positive yardage with his legs.

Head coach James Franklin acknowledged after the game that Clifford was less than 100 percent.

“He was limited today and that’s why we tried to mix the run and the pass in there to take some of that off of him,” Franklin said. “Obviously, it’s a big part of his game that he didn’t have today.”

Of course, Penn State wasn’t able to establish a running game and that’s a big part of why the Lions lost their second straight to Illinois. Penn State is a talented enough team that it should be able to beat Illinois with a beat-up quarterback, a backup quarterback or no quarterback at all.

That’s also not to say that Franklin and company erred in letting Clifford play. Roberson looked thoroughly lost against Iowa. A banged up Clifford might’ve been PSU’s best bet.

But it served as a good reminder that the movie scripts are best left to Hollywood. Usually, when an injured player tries to gut it out, the performance is more of a bomb than a hit.

Injuries are a part of the game, and especially at the quarterback position, can make or break a team’s season. Clifford’s certainly has been a big blow to Penn State, but also spotlighted the need to get backups ready to go just in case.

JT Daniels got hurt for Georgia and may have lost his job to promising youngster Stetson Bennett. Oklahoma discarded Heisman candidate Spencer Rattler for true freshman Caleb Williams. Both of those teams remain unbeaten.

If playing a beat-up and limited Clifford was PSU’s best option, that’s probably an indictment of the talent level behind him and the coaching staff’s ability to get those guys ready to play. Or maybe someone just watched too many movies.

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