Quarterback Debate: Clifford, Penix Among Big Ten Elite, Ready for Saturday's Showdown

Penn State's Sean Clifford and Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. are two of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and they go head-to-head in the season opener on Saturday in Bloomington.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Football is the ultimate team game, but it's often the quarterback position that has the most to do with who wins and who loses. That's more than likely going to be the case Saturday when Indiana hosts No. 8 Penn State in the Big Ten opener for both schools.

For most everyone who puts together a list of the five best quarterbacks in the league, Penn State's Sean Clifford and Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. are almost always on it. Clifford is a proven quantity, with the 6-foot-2 junior from Cincinnati playing all 13 games a year ago — and playing well — leading the Nittany Lions to an 11-2 record and a final No. 9 national ranking.

Penix is a bit more of an unknown on a national scale. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound left-hander from Tampa was a huge get for Indiana, but he's struggled to stay healthy in his first two years. He started six games a year ago, but only finished three, getting knocked out with different injuries. His season ended in early November with a clavicle fracture against Northwestern on Nov. 2. His one start as a freshman was against Penn State, but he left the game with a torn ACL that ended his season.

Penix is very much a look-ahead quarterback, and what's happened in the past doesn't mean anything to him. He's 100 percent healthy, he's added 20 pounds of muscle, and he's ready to have a huge 2020 season.

And that starts Saturday.

The injuries are irrelevant to him, He's a veteran now, and a team leader. His two-plus years of experience mean a lot, even if it has meant sitting back and watching many times.

'Since my freshman year, I have been able to slow the game down, and now I understand everything that has been put in,'' Penix said. "I've always known the playbook, but now I am at the point where I understand why we are calling certain plays and why we are doing certain things. That is one area in which I have gotten better, just slowing the game down, understanding the defense and taking what they give me.''

Clifford went 11-2, but he wasn't perfect. He completed only 59.2 percent of his passes, and against Indiana last year, he was just 11-for-23 passing (47.8 percent) for only 179 yards. But he beat Indiana with his feet, rushing 10 times for 55 yards and converting several first downs with his feet on the final game-clinching drive that lasted 18 plays and burned up more than nine minutes of the fourth-quarter clock. 

"His ability to run the football was what cost us,'' Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said on Monday. "We did a good job of limiting them in their passing game, but Clifford beat us with his feet. I think he's better and better in the passing game, and it will be interesting to see him in this new offense.

"We need to do a better job of limiting him in the run game. That's certainly on the forefront of my mind.''

Two quarterbacks, two teams, two different skill sets — but just one goal.

They both want to win on Saturday.

Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) looks to pass in the second quarter against the Memphis Tigers at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) looks to pass in the second quarter against the Memphis Tigers at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Adjusting to new coordinators

Both quarterbacks have new offensive coordinators at the helm this year, but those relationships couldn't be more different. At Indiana, Nick Sheridan is calling the plays now, but he and Penix have known each other for five years. Sheridan was his primary recruiter, and he's been his position coach at Indiana, as well. 

They know each other like the back of their hands. Both firmly believe they will hit the ground running on Saturday, with no learning curve necessary. On the same page? No doubt.

"I feel that we have been executing well with everything that we have going on right now. I feel like everything has been really good,'' Penix said. "We know each other really well, and I think we work really well together, too.''

Sheridan, the former Michigan quarterback, loves Penix's calm demeanor and his complete and total grasp on the system. That confidence permeates up and down Indiana's roster.

"The moment is never too big for Michael,'' Sheridan said. "He has played at a high level of competitive football for a long time, even in high school. Obviously, that's a great quality to have in your quarterback. He is able to execute under pressure. He is able to operate at the level that we all would want him to regardless of who the opponent is, or what is the situation. He is good in that regard, without a doubt. It is definitely a strength of his.''

For Clifford, he is learning an all new offense under Kirk Ciarrocca, who came over from Minnesota in the offseason. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they haven't spent much time together in person. They are learning on the fly, and trying to quickly build a relationship.

“I think my relationship with Sean is just continuing to grow every day,” Ciarrocca said last week. “I don’t think we had any problem connecting, which is the first thing about a relationship. There has to be some type of connection there or there’s not really going to ever be a relationship."

Clifford, who threw for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns with seven interceptions last season, wishes they would have had more time together on the field, but they are learning to make do.

“We don’t have much time, and we haven’t had the spring and summer to develop the way that we’ve wanted,” Clifford said. “I just need to keep improving every day. I’ve never doubted or felt like I didn’t have the talent to be a College Football Playoff quarterback. I wouldn’t be here if I did.

“I think we have the players, I think we have the talent. We just need to keep focusing on the 1-0 on every single thing that we do.”

Without question, the most interesting element of Saturday's game is how quickly Clifford and Ciarrocca mesh, and how well Clifford makes decisions on the fly late in the game.

The comfort level edge certainly goes to Penix and Sheridan.

Michael Penix

Michael Penix Jr. is looking forward to leading the Hoosiers to another big season. 

Arms race, or big running play?

Michael Penix Jr. hates being called a dual-threat quarterback. 'I'm a passer who can run,'' he's said on multiple occasions the past couple of years. There's no doubt he can throw every pass on the route tree, but if he has to take off, he will. 

And when he goes, he won't be thinking about getting hit.

"Throughout the years, I've learned that when you can get down, you get down, but it's all about making the smart decisions and being available for my team,'' Penix said. 'For me, I always keep my eyes downfield when I scramble, but when I have to tuck it and run, I just need to make the smart plays and get down or get out of bounds when I need to.''

Sheridan talked Monday about using Penix in the run game. It will happen, he said, but it's doubtful that it happens a lot. 

"If you play quarterback, you are going to be asked to run,'' he said. "At different times, whether it is designed runs or just loose plays, you are going to be asked to tuck the ball down and run. There is no way for us to prevent that.

"Obviously, you can limit some of the quarterback runs. You have control over that. We recruit tailbacks to run the ball. We recruit wide receivers to catch it. We recruit quarterbacks to throw it. 

"I think if a strength of one of our quarterbacks is to run it at times, I think you utilize that. But I think it is difficult. If you're a quarterback and you run between the tackles and get tackled by a 240-pound middle linebacker and then you expect them to get up and go rip a dig route, I don't think that is the easiest thing to do. I think you have to be smart.''

Keeping Penix healthy all season is a goal for this Indiana offense. They'll be smart, but they also know he can make plays with his legs when he has to. Penix will be smart, too. 

"I think protecting the quarterback is always important regardless of your style of play,'' Sheridan said. "You're always trying to protect the quarterback, whether it's in the passing game or in running the ball. Qe think Michael is athletic, and some of his runs are going to happen naturally. He may have to tuck the ball down and run, but certainly we are looking to hand the ball off to our tailbacks. 

'With Michael or with anyone, I think it's the same for everybody in our league, in that there are times where the quarterback is going to be asked to be involved in the run game. People want the running backs getting the majority of the carries, and we'll be in the same boat as that. But if he has to go, he'll go.''

Clifford, we know, will take off when he has to. Wommack is convinced that Indiana wins last year if they had kept Clifford's legs under control. They will be better prepared for that this year.

But if it's late in a close game, don't be surprised if either one of them makes a big play with their legs, too. 

Saturday's game has the potential to be a shootout between these two gunslingers. Indiana let a few games slip away a year ago, and that's been a point of emphasis this year – to finish games. 

"We have to make sure that we are finishing our plays. That is one thing that we are stressing this year,'' Penix said. "Coach is stressing that we finish everything that we do. Last year, we fell short in the bowl game and we did not finish. That is something that Coach Allen always preaches to us, to finish. We want to make sure that we execute at our best.

'We've got a lot of guys getting older and playing with a chip on their shoulder. We're not a team to look past. We've got a lot of confidence, and everybody is a year older now. We can execute at a high level and play fast football.''

There's also that bit of unfinished business with Penn State for Penix. The Hoosiers have lost two close games back-to-back, but he was injured in the first in 2018 and too hurt to play last year. 

He's watched film on that game over and over, even though it was Peyton Ramsey who was playing quarterback. From a learning perspective, that doesn't matter. He saw Ramsey play well, throwing for 371 yards. 

"All film is good film,'' Penix said. "Defenses are going to show you the same stuff. With Peyton, it didn't matter because we both ran the same plays. Peyton played great, so he gave us great film, and all film is much needed.''  

VIDEO: Penix talks about learning from film

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