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Smeltzer: Penn State QB Sean Clifford = Class act

Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

UNIVERSITY PARK, P.A.— Penn State QB Sean Clifford became the school’s all-time leading passer in Saturday’s 30-0 demolition of Maryland.

Fittingly, Penn State fans have varying opinions.

“Good for Cliff,” some would say.

”It only took him 20 years!, others would respond.

People who have grown to dislike the sixth-year senior, and even some that like him, are tired of watching him start at QB for Penn State and want to see former five-star recruit Drew Allar take his place sooner rather than later.

Clifford is two regular-season games plus a bowl game away from completing his fourth season as Penn State’s regular starter. Unless a QB is a star, fans will get tired of him after that much time.

Clifford has never been a star QB for Penn State and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. The fact that Penn State went 11-11 over Clifford’s second and third seasons at Penn State also made people mad. This season, it looks like Penn State has a winner again, and unless the team lays an egg at Rutgers or at home against Michigan State, it will finish the regular-season 10-2, with its only losses being to No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State.

Although this season has been better than the last two, the amount of Clifford critics hasn’t changed, or at least doesn’t feel like it has. Some of the complaints are understandable. Forty-three starts give a QB plenty of time to make mistakes, and Clifford’s had his share of those.

“Do I regret a throw?” Clifford asked rhetorically in his postgame media availability after Saturday’s 30-0 win. “Yeah. For sure. A bunch of throws. Hundreds of throws.”

It’s always reasonable for a football fan to be upset when their favorite team’s QB makes a regrettable throw.

It’s never reasonable for a football fan to boo their favorite team’s QB live during pre-game player introductions.

That happened to Clifford before Penn State’s White Out game against Minnesota Oct. 23.

Clifford’s response to those boos was fantastic on the field and in the media room.

On the field, Clifford made one of those regrettable throws in the first quarter, leading to an interception. After that, he settled down and ended up playing one of his best games at Penn State— 23-31, 295 yards, four touchdowns, 74.2 completion percentage— and Penn State won, 45-17.

But it was after the game where, in my eyes, Clifford took his biggest win of the night.

Penn State beat reporter Cory Giger, formally of NSN and now of DKPittsburghSports, asked Clifford about the boos.

Now, Clifford could have used that question to rip into the fans that jeered, and I, for one, wouldn’t have blamed him.

Clifford ended up taking a much better route.

He correctly pointed out that Penn State has a “passionate fanbase” and that he gets that passion.

But Clifford told reporters that he was “going to focus on what I can do on the field.

“I’m going to give my heart, my soul every single time I step onto that field, and nobody can take that away from me,” Clifford said. “So I know that for a fact. But, yeah, I’m just going to focus on the program, the people on our team, and then that’s about it.”

Perfect.

Clifford’s performance against Minnesota could be his last excellent college outing. It could be the last great one of his football career, period. He’s not a lock to play professionally.

The week after the Minnesota game, Penn State played No. 2 Ohio State at Beaver Stadium. Clifford turned the ball over four times, leading to 21 Ohio State points in a 44-31 Buckeye win.

The following two wins: at Indiana (45-14 W) and the Maryland romp, were games Penn State could have won with Elon Musk playing QB.

Aside from breaking McSorley’s record and becoming the only QB in Penn State history—and one of six in Big Ten history—to eclipse 10,000 yards, Clifford didn’t have a good day against Maryland. He went 12-23 for 139 yards and a touchdown, with more than one of those incompletions an overthrow, a somewhat infamous tendency of Clifford’s.

Clifford didn’t dominate on the field.

But he dominated in the media room.

“One of the first things that I was taught when I came into this program,” Clifford said, “was appreciation and the importance of it and being able to really just think about all your blessings and never have any regrets… That’s one of the most proud things I can say is I don’t regret anything that’s happened.

Well, he regrets the poor throws, sure.

“But at the same time, when it comes to how I’ve approached the game, how I’ve approached every single day in the lockerroom. Did I have some bad days? Yeah, for sure. But at the same time, I know I’ve given this program everything I got. Laid my guts on the line for this place… I love everything about Penn State.

“It’s going to be sad to leave, but at the same time… I think myself and the Penn State community are definitely ready to see someone new.”

Clifford said the last part of that quote with a laugh.

“And I’m with them,” he added.

Clifford knows fans want to see Allar take the reigns. If Allar is as advertised, he’ll be the star Clifford never was at Penn State.

Clifford won’t go down in history as an all-time great. But he should be remembered as a leader.

As a great teammate.

As a man with the perspective many people who are much older lack.

That’s a fine legacy.

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