CINCINNATI — Steve Specht is sitting in his office at St. Xavier, amid the timeless clutter of a high school football coach’s inner sanctum—equipment and clothing and old VHS tapes and various totems of past glories fill the space. Through the wall, you can hear classic rock thumping and iron plates clanging in the adjacent weight room. On that same wall hangs a row of hats from various colleges where St. X alums are now playing football: Clemson, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Cincinnati, Penn State, Boston College, plus Ivy League schools and service academies.
The tradition and testosterone run deep here at this all-male Catholic school of 1,400, which has produced several NFL players over the years (2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly the most notable). The Bombers won their fourth state title under Specht last year and are one of the favorites this year as well. It’s deep into their season, but Specht is happy to stop the swirl of action long enough to talk about the only two-time captain he’s had in 17 years as coach.
“That kid?” Specht says. “He’s made of different stuff. He’s built of sterner stuff. What he’s doing now doesn’t surprise me.”
That kid is Sean Clifford, senior quarterback at Penn State. He’s a three-year starter having his best season yet, leading a team that is 5–0 and ranked fourth in the nation. Despite the fact that he is likely to finish his career as PSU’s all-time leader in pass efficiency, and in the top five in virtually every other statistical category, Clifford has had to walk a tightrope of sorts with the Penn State fans.
Some of them gave up on him last season and have yet to come back around in 2021. He’s needed that sterner stuff to let the criticism bounce off him and keep playing.
Clifford has an opportunity to cement himself—one way or the other—with the Penn State faithful Saturday. The Nittany Lions find themselves in their first top-five matchup since 1999, taking on No. 3 Iowa on the road. The outcome will heavily impact both the College Football Playoff and Big Ten races.
The Hawkeyes have risen to this exalted spot by doing one thing better than anyone else in college football: taking the ball away from the other team. They lead the nation in turnovers forced with 16, and in interceptions with 12. That makes one storyline for this game clear and compelling: can Sean Clifford, now playing for his third offensive coordinator in three seasons and coming off multiple benchings in 2020, take care of the ball and take Penn State to 6–0?
“That’s definitely a stat that pops out,” Clifford says about Iowa’s turnover margin. “But we’re a take-care-of-the-ball kind of team anyway.”
Indeed, only eight teams nationally have fewer than the Nittany Lions’ three turnovers. Last year that was the opposite, with Penn State ranking 113th in turnover margin. Clifford had a hand in 12 of their 17 giveaways in 2020, throwing nine interceptions and fumbling three times. It was all part of a season swept away by a confluence of factors: COVID-19, player opt-outs, injuries, an unproductive relationship with one-year coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and Clifford frequently being pulled in favor of backup Will Levis.
Penn State started 0–5, an ignominious first in school history. “Last year was like a snowball going downhill,” says Clifford’s dad, John. “But they recovered. They could have really gone in the tank.”
Penn State won its last four games of 2020 and hasn’t lost since, with the winning streak now at nine. Those first few weeks of last season are the ultimate college football COVID-19 mulligan, but some folks weren’t willing to extend that do-over grace to the quarterback. They were on Clifford’s case.
Back when times were darkest last November, Specht texted his old quarterback to make sure he was OK. “Keep grinding,” Specht wrote. “You, better than most, know how to deal with this. Love you.” Clifford wrote Specht back wishing the Bombers good luck in their next game.
Clifford had been down a similarly rocky road before, in 2016 at St. X. Long committed to Penn State and recognized nationally as one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation, his senior season began disastrously. He suffered a foot injury in the final weeks of preseason practice, then tried to play through it when St. X embarked upon an ambitious national schedule that opened against California powerhouse St. John Bosco.
Taking a beating behind an offensive line decimated by its own injuries, Clifford reinjured his foot in that game and wound up on crutches and in a walking boot. The initial fear was a lisfranc injury that would have ended his season. It turned out to be less severe than that, but Clifford was out of the lineup for two games and then suffered a hamstring injury later in the regular season.
Specht wrote a book last year about that 2016 season, which he titled “4th and Redemption.” It included a lot about Clifford, who Specht described in the book as “in the top one percent of kids I have coached in my career … a special, special person. Sean Clifford loved football and football loved Sean.” But the pressure of being a hotshot recruit, coupled with the frustration of injuries and losses, dampened his lifelong passion.
“I watched Sean lose his joy in the game,” Specht wrote. “I witnessed a great sadness develop in a young man in multiple levels.”
Clifford was in and out of the lineup for much a year that turned into a major disappointment. The Bombers finished 5–5, entering the playoffs as an afterthought. Clifford wound up watching Chase Wolf, now at Wisconsin, take more of the snaps as the season went along.
But Wolf got injured in an early playoff game, and Specht turned back to Clifford to pull St. X out of a hole. The Bombers won that game in overtime, then won the next round in overtime, then a two-point victory in the semifinals. Playing a Cleveland St. Ignatius team that had beaten St. X by 17 points earlier in the season, the Bombers again went to overtime and emerged state champions with a 10–5 record.
Clifford was hit repeatedly in the game, going in and out of the lineup, replaced by Wolf as needed. But he kept coming back in and making the winning plays, often by running. Those playoffs were the best football of his career to that point. “He was a warrior,” Specht says. “He willed us to that state championship. To watch that game, it may have been the guttiest performance of my tenure.”
From an early age, being a star quarterback was the biggest thing Sean Clifford wanted out of life. He and his younger brother, Liam (now a freshman receiver at Penn State), played whatever was in season, and their father coached them in all of them. Sports ran deep in the family.
John Clifford had been a Division III lineman at Dubuque, in Iowa, but his path to playing time there was as a long snapper. In the spring he’d lose 40 pounds and play baseball. Their mother, Kelly, ran track at Dayton.
The family moved from Chicago to Cincinnati when Sean was 6 years old and Liam was 2. Kelly put Sean in a flag football league, telling him there was no tackle until the boys were older, but Sean somehow found out about a tackle league and lobbied her to let him play. In fourth grade, Sean wrote that he wanted to be a Division I college quarterback and put it on his bedroom wall. “From a tiny little one, he’s always been very determined,” Kelly says.
When Sean would come home from a practice or a camp, he’d set up cones in the cul-de-sac outside the house and run through the same drills he just learned. Sean went to a non-football camp on the Penn State campus in fifth grade and came home saying he wanted to go to school there. That came more sharply into focus after attending a football camp at the school after eighth grade.
As a four-star recruit, Sean was in high demand in high school. He considered Michigan State, North Carolina and Northwestern, but after putting the pros and cons of each school on a whiteboard, Penn State was his clear choice. Once there, he redshirted one season and spent 2018 as the backup to the wildly popular and productive Trace McSorley.
Clifford took over as the starter in 2019 and played well, leading the Nittany Lions to an 8–0 start. Then came an upset loss to undefeated Minnesota, and another in a series of gut-busting losses to Ohio State. Penn State finished the season 11–2 but looked like a potential great team in 2020.
Then that season went to hell, taking Clifford along with it. The coordinator change from Ricky Rahne (who became the head coach at Old Dominion) to Ciarrocca did not go well for Clifford, and he became the focal point for fan anger during that 0–5 start.
“That was a tough year for everyone,” John Clifford says. “You’re in that spotlight as quarterback, and it’s not always fun. The one game he didn’t start (Iowa), I’m very proud of how he handled it. He helped Will get prepared. Do you want your son to go through that? No. But it made him a better player and a better teammate.
“Like it or not, you’re viewed as the leader or the face of the program. Sean has handled that very well with the community, signing autographs and taking pictures and making appearances. (Clifford was president of Penn State’s Uplifting Athletes organization that raised money for kidney cancer research.) But if you have a bad day, you’re the brunt of the criticism. But that’s what you sign up for when you play quarterback. He’s fine with that.”
The weekly referendum on Sean Clifford is coming again Saturday, this time in arguably the biggest game of his college career. His parents will be there, as they are for every game, maintaining the same tradition: John will nervously walk around Kinnick Stadium, unable to sit still, finding vantage points in alcoves and other areas to watch plays as he circulates. Kelly will stay put. “Someone needs to stay in the stadium,” she says with a laugh.
Steve Specht will be in Iowa as well, but not in Iowa City. His son Cameron plays for Dayton, which is taking on Drake in Des Moines on Saturday. When that game is over, he’ll hustle to find a TV and watch his old St. X quarterback take on that opportunistic Iowa defense. He’s not worried about how Clifford will do in this pressurized spot.
“He’s been through all this,” Specht says. “Sean Clifford knows how to deal with adversity better than anyone I’ve ever had.”
More College Football Coverage:
• Can These Coaches Get Back in Good Graces?
• What a 12-Team Bracket Would Look Like After Week 5
• College Football's Greatest Moments of Gridiron Disrespect
• Clemson’s Offense Is Broken, and There May Not Be a Simple Fix