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Smeltzer: Saturday Another Example of ‘The Sean Clifford Experience’

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Sean Clifford

Saturday’s loss to Ohio State was a perfect example of what Nittany Sports Now’s Jarrod Prugar and I’m sure many others like to call “The Sean Clifford Experience.”

Clifford’s been at Penn State since 2017, and it feels like he’s been there since Ulysses S. Grant was in office.

His career can accurately be described as a proverbial roller coaster.

Clifford has quarterbacked an 11-win team. He’s also quarterbacked a team that started 0-5. He’s made fans believe, such as when Penn State started 5-0 and rose to No. 4 in the country in 2021.

He’s made fans upset, such as when the team finished 7-6 in 2021 and many placed blame at his feet.

Most rational Penn State fans appreciate what Clifford’s meant to the program. He’s a leader. He sets an excellent example, and, yes, he’s capable of playing good football.

But pretty much every Penn State fan acknowledges that Clifford is a flawed QB, and boy, were there some flaws in his performance against Ohio State. The Buckeyes scored 44 points, and 21 of them came off Clifford turnovers.

Penn State’s first two possessions ended in interceptions and led to seven Ohio State points.

In the fourth quarter, two more Clifford turnovers led to 14 points.

Ah, but Clifford played good football in between, and as a result, took Penn State fans on a roller coaster ride that, for moments, had them believing that their team could beat mighty Ohio State. He threw touchdown passes on each of Penn State’s first two possessions of the second quarter. Had the game ended right then, it would have been an excellent example of Clifford’s up-and-down career.

Well, it didn’t end because that’s not how the game works.

But the roller coaster continued in the second half.

Clifford led Penn State on a 13-play, 75-yard, 5:44 scoring drive that put it in front, 21-16, with 9:44 left.

With 2:44 to go, Penn State trailed 44-24.

That’s largely because of the roller coaster going down again.

Clifford lost a fumble that led to a 23-21 Buckeye lead becoming a 30-21 lead. He later threw a pick-6 that didn’t really matter because Ohio State was already up by 13 with less than three minutes left.

Clifford was already a big story coming into the Ohio State game. Sure, a QB at a big-time program is usually a big deal, and one as polarizing as Clifford is under more of a microscope than most.

The biggest storyline surrounding Clifford coming into the Ohio State game was that, well, he’d never beaten Ohio State. He came into this year’s matchup 0-3 against the Buckeyes as Penn State’s starter, and after the scrappy Lions fell short Saturday, he’ll end his career 0-4.

As NSN’s Darian Somers pointed out during Ohio State week, there are two teams Clifford has never beaten; Ohio State and Nebraska.

The latter Clifford only played once. The former will go down as one notch that Clifford could never get on his belt.

Saturday was Clifford’s last chance to beat Ohio State, and to me, it was his last chance to have a signature win over any program. Penn State’s last four games are at Indiana, at home against Maryland, at Rutgers and against Michigan State Senior Day at Beaver Stadium. Of those four, Maryland has the best chance of being ranked, and even if it is, the Terps aren’t considered Penn State’s equal. Neither is Auburn, a bad SEC school who Penn State’s 41-12 win over doesn’t look as impressive as it did after Week 3. Purdue isn’t, either. The Boilers, at 5-3, are a decent team, but that’s all they are.

And maybe that’s all Clifford’s football career will be remembered as: Decent at best.

Clifford still has a chance to do good things at Penn State. If Penn State wins out as it should, the Nittany Lions will finish the season 10-2, and a 10-win regular season for a team that only won 11 games total the past two years would be a success.

I believe that Penn State has the potential to turn into a powerhouse after Clifford leaves because of its young talent, with Clifford’s likely successor, Drew Allar, being at the head of it. There will be plenty of chances for signature wins over the next few years. But for this year’s team and, for that matter, the rest of Clifford’s career, the only two chances were at Michigan and at home against Ohio State.

Penn State just couldn’t get the job done in either of those games.

The Ohio State game summed up the wild career Sean Clifford has had at Penn State: Fun at some points, depressing at others, ultimately leaving things to be desired on the football field.

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