STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Sean Clifford spent last week getting a head start for what he expects will be his biggest test of the season.
The extra week of practice and film study aside, Penn State’s sixth-year quarterback has something else going for him as the No. 10 Nittany Lions prepare to visit No. 5 Michigan Saturday for a Big Ten East showdown.
He’s healthy and feeling spry, fresh off a bye weekend spent with friends and family at a pumpkin patch.
“It is nice to be able to have that time off,” Clifford said.
He expects a rude welcome in The Big House, where the Wolverines haven’t lost since Clifford and Penn State beat them in the finale of the 2020 season. The Wolverines currently have the country’s fifth-best scoring defense and are fueled by their pass rush. They’ve got 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss over their last three games and 18 total quarterback hurries.
“They look every part of one of the top defensive lines in the country,” Clifford said.
Penn State’s offensive linemen, who have kept Clifford’s uniform clean most of the season, are determined to do so again. They know it could be the difference moving forward.
“Cliff has played in plenty of these big games,” guard Sal Wormley said. “He knows how to handle certain situations. It just overall builds up the confidence of the team when you know you’ve got somebody back there who’s gonna be prepared, who’s not gonna let the lights outshine him.”
Last year, Clifford was dealing with multiple ailments during the bye week, recovering from a hard shot to the ribs that knocked him out of the team’s Oct. 9 loss at Iowa. The Nittany Lions never recovered, losing five of their next seven.
Clifford didn’t spend time during his break dwelling on his worst outing of the season, either.
He was just 10 for 20 in the rain in Penn State’s 17-7 win over Northwestern, tossed a bad interception and nearly had two other passes picked off. Meanwhile, each of the team’s top three running backs fumbled and speedy wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith was hurt — he’s expected to be back for this weekend.
Clifford has excelled at directing traffic and coaching up his younger teammates, notably freshmen backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen who both spent time on the bench after miscues against the Wildcats.
“His entire career and his entire season kind of keeps building up to moments like this and opportunities like this,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Clifford. “To win on the road against this type of opponent, we’re going to have to play well and that also includes our quarterback.”
Franklin also said Clifford “has done some really good things,” mentioning the passing game and run game.
For linemen like Wormley, Clifford’s positives include big throws down the field. Clifford can only make those if he has time — and the Wolverines excel at taking it away, especially on third downs where opponents are completing just 39% of their passes.
Michigan is coming off a seven-sack performance against Indiana; Hoosier quarterback Connor Bazelak completed just 25 of 49 passes.
But Wormley isn’t worried.
“I don’t think we’ve proved anything yet,” Wormley said. “I feel like the season still just started when we’re five games in. I feel like we have plenty more football, plenty more opportunities to show what we’re really capable of, and I feel like we’re taking strides.”