TAMPA, Fla. — Sean Clifford's competitive urge occasionally clouds his technical skill. The Penn State quarterback's final throw of the 2021 season underscored that.
Clifford wanted a fourth-quarter touchdown desperately in the Outback Bowl, so with his team down two scores, he loaded up a ball into end-zone double coverage for tight end Theo Johnson. Worse, he telegraphed the throw to Arkansas' defense.
"I told myself, find a way, find a way, make a play, and when I saw him staring the receiver down, I just stayed back and went to the ball," Arkansas defensive back Joe Baucha said. "Because I knew it was coming."
And it's coming back. Penn State's 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl, as with so many games of its 7-6 season, was shouldered by the offense. The Lions scored 10 points, their lowest total in two years, and capped a season with two telling but depressing statistics:
- Penn State's offense did not score more than 28 points in a game against a Power 5 team.
- It also did not produce a 100-yard rusher in a game for the first time since 1978.
Head coach James Franklin said the season was "not what we had hoped for," largely because his offense did not take the shape he envisioned. Now it lingers in an ambiguous space, not exactly rebuilding yet definitely not reloading, which doesn't inspire confidence in a 2022 rebound.
Before the Outback Bowl, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said his group was "not good enough" during a season in which it averaged 25 points per game, Penn State's lowest since 2015. Yurcich delivered the money quote in December, saying he'd build a championship-level offense or "die trying."
But this winter will bring the cold reality: There's a lot to fix here.
From the offensive line to the quarterback to the head coach/coordinator dynamic, Penn State has as many offensive issues as at any time in Franklin's tenure. After eight years, and with a quarterback entering his fourth season as the starter, Franklin's offense should not require so much effort to make functional — especially considering the players it has sent to the NFL over the past five years.
The Outback Bowl saw all of Penn State's 2021 issues bubble to the surface: the hot-and-cold quarterback, a line often unable to keep a clean pocket, an inconsistent running game and a coordinator quick-triggering away from that run.
For example: Penn State rushed for 48 yards in the second quarter, by no means a staggering number, but was getting production from Keyvone Lee and Noah Cain. So what were Yurcich's first two calls of the third quarter? Option runs with Clifford, who led the team with 11 carries. Lee and Cain had five each.
Then there was the quarterback, who had a difficult game after resetting physically and mentally for the past month. Clifford brought fire to the Outback Bowl, expecting to set an offensive tone that he could use to lead through winter workouts and spring drills. Instead, he left with more questions.
Clifford completed 43 percent of his passes and finished with an efficiency rating of 92.8, both season-lows (his illness-shortened Rutgers game notwithstanding). He threw six consecutive incompletions during an attempted second-half comeback and left the game after the interception. Franklin said it was a medical decision.
"I thought he played gutsy, I thought he battled," Franklin said. "Obviously he made some plays, but there's some plays I know he would like to have back. I think there's some things that we can do to help him as well."
Most of them involve the run game. Franklin and Yurcich seemed to have this uncomfortable push-pull regarding it for most of the season. Franklin has said several times that he urges Yurcich to show patience in calling run plays. Yet Yurcich often seemed to abandon it, perhaps rightly, in favor of a run-by-passing framework.
Franklin brought it up once again after the Outback Bowl.
"We needed to run the ball more consistently," the head coach said. "There's no doubt about that. We can't go away from it. We did some good things in the first half. We've got to keep those things mixed in, and we didn't do that."
When he hired Yurcich in 2021, Franklin suggested that this was the coordinator whom he had sought for several years. Yurcich's past teams at Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Texas have scored points. But year one of the partnership was erratic, culminating with the deflating Outback Bowl performance.
Meanwhile, without its top two receivers, Ohio State set a bunch of offensive records in the Rose Bowl. As a result, Penn State's immediate future looks no more promising.
The Buckeyes visit Beaver Stadium on Oct. 1, and the Lions visit Michigan the following week. By the end of that stretch, Penn State could be 3-3 (or worse) and already wondering about 2023.
That's why Penn State's offensive surgery starts now. Franklin, Yurcich and Clifford are like-minded veterans with fierce competitive streaks who need to course-correct. They weren't in sync this season, particularly during its latter half. Will that improve?
A young receiver is counting on it.
"I mean, it was year one," Lambert-Smith said. "It’s about building chemistry, and the leadership is going to be big. So with another offseason with coach Yurcich and Sean coming back, I feel like it’s only going to be better."