Penn State coach James Franklin waited nervously in a hotel hallway Saturday morning for players to get their temperatures checked. When freshman quarterback Christian Veilleux passed, Franklin cheered.
Barely eight hours later, Franklin already was sidestepping a minor quarterback controversy. Veilleux, a true freshman who had not taken a live game snap in more than two years, threw three touchdown passes in Penn State's 28-0 victory over Rutgers. He did so in relief of three-year starter Sean Clifford, who tried to play through an illness but left the game in the first quarter.
Veilleux revived a languid offense, particularly in the third quarter, when he went 6-for-9 for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Veilleux finished 15 of 24 for 235 yards, rushed for 36 yards on 10 carries and became the first Penn State true freshman to throw a touchdown pass since Christian Hackenberg in 2013.
Now, Franklin is asked, where was Veilleux at Iowa in October and against Illinois two weeks later? Who will start Penn State's regular-season finale at Michigan State? And what about next year, when Penn State's quarterback room will include two true freshmen and could include Clifford if he decides to return for a sixth season?
"After the way Veilleux played today," Franklin said, "I get the question."
Still, it's surprising that Veilleux even played at all. Because of a non-COVID illness that affected the team last week, Penn State did not have a healthy scholarship quarterback for its Friday walkthrough. Clifford and Veilleux were among those sick. On Friday night, Franklin was prepared to start walk-on quarterback Mason Stahl.
Then Veilleux (pronounced Vay-You) was cleared Saturday morning, Clifford received IV fluids before being cleared at the stadium and got the start based on his experience. But the senior, who participated in the pregame Senior Day ceremony, was out of sorts.
Clifford completed two of eight passes and appeared to get hurt late in the first quarter. Franklin told Clifford that Veilleux would take over. Clifford went from the sideline injury tent to the locker room.
Veilleux, who is from Canada, had not played in a game since November 2019 at The Bullis School in Maryland. His school canceled the 2020 football season because of the pandemic.
Though he enrolled last January, Veilleux spent much of the season behind Ta'Quan Roberson as the No. 2 quarterback. As a result, when Clifford was injured against Iowa, Roberson took over.
Iowa seized on Roberson's inexperience, particularly in a hostile road environment, to rally from a 14-point deficit for a 23-20 victory.
"They're allowed to get better," Franklin said Saturday. "You know, at that point, it was not obvious that [Veilleux] was going to be the backup quarterback. ... Ta’Quan had been in the program longer and really, it's pretty obvious to everybody that he gave us the best chance at that stage to win."
Six weeks later, Veilleux had surpassed Roberson, in part through his performances in the team's developmental scrimmages. Teammates said they have seen him improve gradually and consistently since arriving.
"With Christian, it's different," receiver Jahan Dotson said. "You look at him, you don't see any fear or any sight of backing down. He's been ready for the moment ever since he came in here. He's been practicing like it, playing like it, and he finally got to show you guys today the talent he has."
Veilleux illustrated that best on the 8-yard touchdown pass he threw to Dotson in the second quarter. Veilleux recognized man-to-man coverage, checked the protection and rolled to his right to track Dotson. The throw whistled through a narrow window to Dotson in the end zone.
Dotson said Veilleux made "literally the perfect play."
"He was very poised," Dotson said. "He never seemed to get rattled at any moment in the game. He stayed calm, made the right reads. He had a tremendous game."
Franklin said that Veilleux demonstrated a growing command of the playbook as the season progressed, allowing him to recognize pressures, adjust protections and train his focus on the defense. With time, Veilleux continued closing the gap on Roberson as the No. 2 quarterback.
And Penn State began looking toward the future as well, as the true freshman competed closely with a player in his third season.
"I think this continued to grow his confidence and our confidence in him," Franklin said.
Clifford returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter to share a big hug with Veilleux. About the only obstacle Veilleux couldn't dodge was the Beaver Stadium tunnel, where he took a tumble after the celebration. Nothing bad happened, and Veilleux emerged later with teammate (and fellow Canadian) Jesse Luketa to chat with two Canadian players from Rutgers.
As Penn State receiver Parker Washington said, Veilleux "carried himself like a professional," reminding everyone in the process not to forget about him in 2022. Though Dotson won't be there, he's looking forward to tracking Veilleux's progress.
"He had a tremendous game," Dotson said. "It was everything you could ask for from a freshman quarterback. I’m just excited to see what he’s going to do later down the road."