Sean Clifford looks to set the tone for Penn State’s No. 10 as Michigan’s No. 5 bye week exits

Sean Clifford has already been here during his six years at Penn State. In 2019, the Nittany Lions started 5-0 en route to winning their first eight games. A year ago, Clifford and Penn State traveled to Iowa in early October with a 5-0 record under their belt. And this weekend, the 5-0 Nittany Lions head into the heart of Big Ten country to take on Michigan.

The previous two times, Penn State stumbled. The 2019 Nittany Lions lost on the road to Minnesota and Ohio State two weeks later to settle for a Cotton Bowl berth. The 2021 Nittany Lions lost Clifford and then the game to Iowa before collapsing in the second half.

Penn State’s No. 10 wants to avoid that in 2022, and it starts at Michigan’s No. 5 on Saturday. Clifford could play a key role in changing the fate of the Nittany Lions this fall, and while his on-field play will be a big part of that, his coaches and teammates are looking to what Clifford can do from a leadership perspective.

Before the team’s bye week, the coach james franklin said Clifford spoke to the team about his importance with the Nittany Lions’ position in their schedule. And although Clifford declined to delve into specifics, he communicated that while the record would not change after the weekend, the weather could set the team up for future success.

“Obviously I feel like I’m going to keep a lot of it in-house because it’s a family affair. But at the same time, I got up and spoke,” Clifford said on Zoom Tuesday. “I just wanted to make sure we understood the magnitude of what a week off really means. I think Coach Franklin hit the nail on the head when he said it was a week off, not a week off. It’s an opportunity to not have an opponent, to be able to focus on yourself, so to relay the importance to the team in my own words, more or less. I think the team handled it extremely well, got a lot out of it.

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Franklin and Clifford both pointed out that Saturday’s nationally televised game between the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and Wolverines (6-0, 3-0) at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan ( noon, Fox) is the type of game players come to Penn State for. Clifford has been there for many of them in his career, which is valuable for a program that relies on plenty of young talent on both sides of the ball.

“His leadership has intensified week by week, as we’ve seen as a team,” the linebacker said. King of Kobe, a freshman in a red shirt, on Zoom on Tuesday. “He comes to us and just talks to us about some things that are going on and some things that we need to improve as a whole, so that we can thrive. … But really, he intensifies vocally, and on the pitch, he intensifies as well. He keeps the guys in check and he’s like a positive critic of the team. That’s really it.

tight end Brenton Strange, who has been one of Clifford’s most productive targets this season with 15 catches for 231 yards (15.4 yards per catch) and four touchdowns, has seen the team’s four-time captain work to make eye changes from the public who had a great impact on the team. Strange considers Clifford to be one of the best leaders he’s ever seen in his entire athletic career.

“Just being vocal in practice. It could be something as little as that,” Strange said on Zoom Wednesday morning. “Just talk when he needs to talk. When something goes wrong in practice, and he knows it and we all know it and there’s no one to step in, Cliff definitely does it every time. It is very impactful, whether it seems little or not to you. It’s very important to us because at the end of the day, it just helps us to keep improving. I think Cliff has done a great job of being that type of leader this year.

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Still, Clifford needs to show a steady hand on the pitch. He’s coming off his most uneven outing of the season against Northwestern when he completed just 10 of 20 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown with an interception. There were also a few near-misses.

On the season, Clifford completed 62.04 percent of his passes for 1,030 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions. He also added four quick rushing touchdowns.

“Sean has done some really good things,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “I think there are games he would love to pick up, there’s no doubt about that. But I think overall the way he’s handled our attack, whether it’s the passing game and protections whether it’s the running game and getting everyone on the same page in terms of how we identify a front and then that makes this four-on-six plays a game that you need your quarterback for the media or the fan or the coach to watch the game and say that was a critical play in the game that Sean was able to do for us.

“So I think his whole career and his whole season continue to develop and lead to moments like this and opportunities like this.”

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Saturday’s game could change the trajectory of Penn State’s season, and the Nittany Lions are hoping Clifford’s previous experience in contests like these could give them an edge, especially against the talented but young starter in the Michigan, JJ McCarthy.

Franklin changed the format of the bye week to give Penn State more practice time and more opportunities to prepare for Michigan. The Nittany Lions want the focus on the bye week to pay off, especially with the Michigan road trip kicking off a three-game streak that also includes home games against Minnesota and No. 2 from Ohio.

As Franklin said, this is where Clifford’s career was built. This will be his last year of college football, and it’s his last chance to leave his mark on Penn State. Clifford’s sense of urgency has been palpable at times this season, and the Nittany Lions are hoping his leadership, not to mention his play on the court, can give them a boost when they need it.

“The Standard Comes to Support Each Other,” Offensive Lineman Sal Wormley said on Zoom on Tuesday. “People mess up, players mess up every game. We’re not going to play perfectly, of course. But if everyone is supporting you and everyone is on the same page, nobody is pointing fingers, nobody is blaming a different group. Everyone recognizes their own mistakes and just tries to do the best they can. I think that’s really what Sean pushed for on offense.

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Daniel Gallen covers Penn State for Lions247 and 247Sports. He can be contacted at [email protected] Follow Daniel on Twitter at @danieljtgallen.

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