To casual football fans who came to Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon– and, of the 106,038 (announced) that were in attendance, there were plenty of casuals– Penn State’s win over Rutgers Saturday was uneventful. Maybe even boring.
The Nittany Lions ended an ugly first half with a 7-0 lead before turning it on in the last two quarters and pulling away for a 28-0 win. In short, Penn State won a game it was favored to win by a wide margin (17 points favorites) by a wide margin. Ho-hum.
While the game can be considered mundane, the week leading up to it was a mess, particularly Thursday, Friday and even gameday morning. Thirty-five players came down with a campus-wide flu virus. Twenty-one were ruled out because of it, and the other 14 played while ill.
“Thursday, it looked like a hospital ward in there,” coach James Franklin said. “There were IVs everywhere. Friday was the same way. We didn’t have a scholarship quarterback in Friday’s practice. We weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
Among those affected was quarterback Sean Clifford. The redshirt senior was sick throughout the week, needing an IV Friday. On Saturday morning, Franklin allowed Clifford to rest through breakfast. Then, the quarterback got enough IV. When the starting quarterback didn’t partake in warmups, some figured that true freshman Christian Veilleux– who himself was questionable until he passed a temperature check Saturday morning– would make his first career start.
Then, Clifford’s name came over the loudspeaker as the starter in the pregame lineup introductions. He took the field in uniform for Senior Day introductions, began throwing passes to fellow senior Jahan Dotson. Sure enough, when Penn State’s offense took the field for the first time, No. 14 was out there.
It was apparent early, however, that something was wrong.
Clifford’s illness showed on the field as he went 2-8 passing for 23 yards. When he got up slowly after a run for no gain, that was all for him.
The true freshman- a Canadian citizen who played his high school football in Potomac, Maryland- didn’t play like a true freshman and certainly didn’t play like a man coming back from illness.
Instead, he played like a quarterback.
Veilleux– who was not made available for postgame comment– completed 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards and three scores and added 36 yards on the ground, good for second on Penn State’s offense for the day.
The word “poised” was used by both Franklin and senior receiver Jahan Dotson to describe the freshman.
“I was proud of him at just how poised he was today,” Franklin said. “Very poised. Made some plays with his legs, made some big-time throws. Made some checks. So obviously, it’s something to build on… he’s gotten better.”
“He’s poised,” Dotson, who caught Veilleux’s first college touchdown pass from eight yards with 1:03 left in the first half, said. “He was very poised. Never seemed to get rattled at any moment in the game. Stayed calm, made the right reads. He had a tremendous game. He was everything and more that you can ask for from a freshman quarterback.”
Veilleux threw two more touchdowns– one to Parker Washington and one to fellow Canadian Malick Meiga, which was Meiga’s first Penn State score.
Not too long ago, Veilleux was the backup’s backup, playing behind both Clifford and Ta’Quan Roberson. Now, he’s the precise number two, and some fans will probably pine for him to start next week at Michigan State whether Clifford is in sickness or in health.
Regardless of if Veilleux takes another meaningful snap in 2021, he had a day to remember, and for Franklin and Dotson, improvement, when the cameras weren’t rolling, is what led to it.
“His grasp and understanding of the playbook and knowing it inside and out,” Franklin said. “Him being able to adjust protection. When you see a young quarterback in there, what are you going to do? You’re going to light him up with blitzes and pressure. So (he needed to) adjust to the protection. It’s not just knowing the plays; you have to know your plays so well that you can focus on the defense.”
“He’s been ready for this moment ever since he came here,” Dotson said. “He’s been practicing like it and playing like it. He finally got to show you the talent that he has.”
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