Clifford never lacked intensity, and he wasn’t about to before his last college game, especially when it was the Rose Bowl.
These words were the highlight of Clifford’s pregame speech.
“We set this tone for the f****** future.”
Clifford ended up playing arguably his best college game, and Penn State beat Utah, 35-21.
Sean Clifford is – ready. pic.twitter.com/OA9EUqfNUE
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) January 2, 2023
It was a magical night for Penn State, and many felt that its performance on the second day of 2023 was a sign of things to come for the rest of the year. It was also a big game for offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
His offense produced the longest passing TD in the 109-game Rose Bowl history, the third-longest run in its history and scored two touchdowns out of the T-formation, which Yurcich brought back to Penn State.
That night will always be magical, especially for the players who made it happen, and nothing that happens in the future can take that away.
But less than a full season after that Rose Bowl win, Penn State fired Yurcich, and to me, this affirms that the program’s progress from Pasadena has been fully lost.
To be clear, I think coach James Franklin made the right call.
Penn State combined to score three touchdowns in it’s latest losses to Ohio State and Michigan, and two of those touchdowns came late in the fourth quarter with Penn State’s chances on life support.
That’s not good enough. To me, Franklin needed to do something to show how sick he was of losing the two Big Ten games that matter most, and firing the offensive coordinator less than 24 hours after losing to Michigan shows that.
It also shows that the Rose Bowl wasn’t the springboard for the program the way many thought it would be.
Penn State will probably win double-digit games again this season. The keyword there is “again.” PSU has accomplished that feat three times under Franklin, and it’s getting to the point where going 10-2 is a punchline.
When Clifford said “we set this tone for the f****** future,” I doubt he meant “let’s keep going 10-2 after I’m gone.”
Penn State came into this season as a team many saw as a national championship contender, and up until this past Saturday, it had a shot to win the Big Ten and get to the College Football Playoff, the latter of which it had never done. Penn State’s won two national championships before, and in both cases, the previous season’s bowl game can be looked at as a turning point.
The year before Penn State limited Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in its first national title win, it did the same to Heisman winner Marcus Allen in the Fiesta Bowl. The last game of 1981 set the tone for ‘82.
Prior to beating Miami in one of college football’s most famous games to win its second national title, Penn State blew a chance to do it in the previous season’s Orange Bowl against Oklahoma.
The pain of that lost served as a motivator for the next seasons.
Those national title wins aren’t the only examples in Penn State history of bowl games being launching pads.
Before the programs most recent unbeaten season (1994), the team ended 1993 with a come-from-behind win over Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.
There’s even an example in the James Franklin era of Penn State football. PSU ended its 2015 season 7-6 and with a loss to Georgia in the coveted TaxSlayer Bowl. In that loss, the team was down 24-3 in the fourth quarter, but almost came back thanks largely to two touchdown passes by a backup QB named Trace McSorley.
The next season, McSorley was the starter, and Penn State won the Big Ten, and going to the Rose Bowl.
This January marked Penn State’s return to Pasadena, and unlike its last trip, Penn State left with a win and a feeling that 2023 could be something magical.
Clifford was right. Bowl games— especially big ones— are supposed to set the stage for the future.
The aren’t supposed to be followed up by firing a coordinator in the middle of a season.
Almost all of what I’ve written here would have relevant the second the Michigan game ended, and before the Michigan game, this is the column I planned on writing if Penn State had lost.
But you can only write one column for the morning after a game, and I chose to use mine on the fact that, despite extraordinary circumstances surrounding the game, it turned into another case of a Franklin team laying an egg on a big stage.
The firing of Yurcich gave me another chance to write this piece, and I took it.
I’m not saying Penn State can never win a national championship. Close losses to the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country being looked at so cynically is proof that the potential is there. But if and when that day comes, nobody will look at that magical night in Pasadena as where it all started.