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Smeltzer: Learn From History, Don’t Play Clifford if he’s Hurt

Sean Clifford
Photo by Penn State Athletics: QB Sean Clifford looks to run in Saturday's game against Maryland.

My view of Sean Clifford as a quarterback didn’t change after Penn State’s embarrassing loss at Michigan this past Saturday.

He didn’t play well, going 7-19 for 120 yards and no touchdowns. But he wasn’t the main reason Penn State lost 41-17, and hopefully anybody who watched the game can attest to that.

Clifford left early in the fourth quarter, giving way to celebrated backup Drew Allar. After the massacre’s conclusion, coach James Franklin told reporters that Clifford exited due to injury, not performance.

Franklin keeps injury details sealed like a letter, so we won’t know much about Clifford’s health until Wednesday, when media is allowed to watch a portion of Penn State’s practice.

But if Clifford is hurt enough to where his health could negatively impact his performance and thus Penn State’s chances to bounce back against Minnesota, Allar should start the White Out, and history backs up this claim.

The similarities between this season and last are starting to feel like something out of “The Twilight Zone.”

In 2021, Penn State opened the season with a big conference win on the road, beat Auburn in Week 3 and started 5-0.

In 2022, Penn State opened the season with a big conference win on the road, beat Auburn in Week 3 and started 5-0.

In 2021, Penn State faced a top five opponent on the road in Game 6 and lost.

In 2022, Penn State faced a top five opponent on the road in Game 6 and lost.

Clifford got hurt in both of those losses.

Now, Penn State can change the script.

After losing to Iowa in Week 6 last year— a game probably best remembered for Clifford’s second quarter injury and backup QB Ta’Quan Roberson’s incompetence in relief— Penn State had a bye week.

It’s first game back was against Illinois at Beaver Stadium on Homecoming.

With Clifford’s health in question and the common belief being that the Illini— who came into the week   2-5– were weak enough for No. 7 Penn State to take care of even if the equipment manager played quarterback, Franklin still decided to play his starter.

Penn State fans remember what ended up happening, and they hate it. Illinois pulled a stunner, 20-18, in nine overtimes.

The loss wasn’t entirely Clifford’s fault, but I don’t think his career-worst 21.8 QBR helped Penn State that day.

Clifford clearly wasn’t healthy, but he played anyway, and the team lost.

There are spooky similarities between this week’s Minnesota game and that Illinois debacle.

Like Illinois, Minnesota is in the Big Ten West. Like the Illinois game, this Saturday at Beaver Stadium marks Penn State’s Homecoming. Like last year, Penn State is coming into Homecoming 5-1.

Last year’s game against Illinois took place Oct. 23.

The Minnesota game is scheduled for Oct. 22.

The parallels don’t end there. Last year, Illinois stunned Penn State despite playing with a quarterback, Aaron Sitkowski, who only threw for 38 yards all day. Well, Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan went down with a concussion in this past Saturday’s loss to, guess who, Illinois, and his status for Saturday is uncertain. If Morgan can’t go, the presumed starter, Athan Kaliakmanis, has thrown 11 passes in his college career, six coming against Illinois.

But Illinois showed last year that teams can beat Penn State without throwing the ball.

How did the Illini do it?

They ran the ball.

A lot.

Like, a ton.

Illinois ran it 67 times for 357 yards that day, and Chase Brown had 33 of those carries for 223 of the yards and a score.

Brown is one of the best running backs in the Big Ten, and so is Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who Penn State is slated to see Saturday.

Whether Penn State can or can’t contain the run doesn’t fall on Sean Clifford, and the Illinois debacle isn’t the sole reason Clifford shouldn’t play Saturday if he’s hurt.

But if Clifford is still recovering, I think Franklin should think about Illinois when considering who to start at quarterback.

It’s possible, if not likely, that part of the reason Franklin played Clifford against Illinois was because he didn’t have an established backup.

The aforementioned Roberson proved inadequate, and true freshman Christian Veilleux hadn’t proved anything at the time.

Penn State doesn’t have that problem this year.

Although Allar probably isn’t the QB messiah Penn State fans think he is— not yet, anyway— he’s proven capable of playing competent football,  and we all know he has the potential to be much better than competent. Franklin knows it, too, and that should make his decision easier if Clifford’s health isn’t what he hopes.

Some quarterbacks can play hurt and dominate. Guys like Alabama’s Bryce Young and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker come to mind. I don’t believe Clifford is one them, and I don’t believe Clifford needs to be fully incapable of playing to sit for health reasons.

If healthy, I still think Clifford is the best QB for Penn State going forward. The team is still a good bet to finish 10-2, which would be a nice step for the program after winning 11 games combined over the last two seasons.

That view could change after the Minnesota game, but we’re not there yet.

Right now, I say Penn State should only play Sean Clifford if his injury won’t be an issue.

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