STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After posing for photos with a few students lingering late at Beaver Stadium, Sean Clifford wanted to sit. Long night, lots of emotional swings, and the Penn State quarterback wanted to absorb it while describing it.
Ultimately, Clifford stood for his postgame interview session (at the polite request of a communications staffer), which he was good with, too. Saturday was Clifford's best night in a Penn State uniform (even if he wouldn't say it), and the third-year starter could spend a few more minutes on his feet to chat.
"That's for you guys to decide," Clifford said when asked whether this was his best performance at Penn State. "I've got a lot more, too."
Clifford pitched a gem in No. 10 Penn State's 28-20 victory over Auburn, the kind of performance his recruiting chops and Elite 11 pedigree heralded several years ago. Clifford completed 28 of 32 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, an 87.5-percent completion rate that became a new career-high.
Two years ago, Clifford completed 84 percent of his passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 win over Maryland. But that game had none of the stakes of Saturday, nor the defensive skill to confront.
But blessed with time to throw ("On one play, I was waiting for a guy to hit me," he said), Clifford played his most consistently accurate game at Penn State. He completed seven consecutive passes, and 12 of 13 at one point in the first half, spreading the ball to seven different receivers.
In Jahan Dotson, Clifford clearly has found a successor to the receiver relationship he had with KJ Hamler two years ago. Dotson caught a career-high 10 passes, some in deftly acrobatic ways, and was targeted on six consecutive attempts at one point.
After losing the 2020 offseason to COVID precautions (the two didn't even lift together during the preseason), Clifford and Dotson have one of the best relationships in the Big Ten. Clifford has developed an innate trust in the senior receiver, which has carried him far through three games.
Perhaps Clifford's best play was a first-quarter touchdown pass to Dotson, who wasn't the first read. Clifford had running back Noah Cain open on a swing pass and, at first, seemed to look off him incorrectly. But then Clifford swiveled his head to find Dotson alone in the end zone.
It was the kind of play Clifford struggled with last season. Recognition, patience, and field sense often got lost in his racing mind. On Saturday, head coach James Franklin said that Clifford managed the game well, though the quarterback was far more than a game manager.
Franklin did notice some differences in his quarterback, and not just in how he threw the ball. Clifford scrambled smartly once again, particularly on a 20-yard carry that converted a key first down. But he tempered those instincts to hang in a mostly well-protected pocket gifted by his offensive line.
"I think in years past, he may have stepped up to scramble when he didn't need to," Franklin said. "He did a really good job feeling the pocket."
Before the game, ESPN's Chris Fowler said that Clifford, who turned 23 this summer, needed to make a statement this season. The season set up as a "potential showcase" for Clifford, Fowler said, if he played to his potential.
Clifford did, and it was his showcase.
"You want to be judged as a quarterback by how you play against the best?" Fowler said. "Here's a very good test."
Clifford has run hot in games like this during his career, letting the adrenaline carry him into some frantic decisions. But he was far more poised Saturday, shifting protections, releasing the ball quickly, moving the offense and protecting the ball.
Even his first turnover this season, a long interception late in the first half, served essentially as an arm punt. And Clifford's confidence was clear on the play, at least until he took a big hit upon releasing the ball.
"It was probably the calmest I've ever been in a game, to be honest with you," Clifford said. "From the first snap, I was seeing everything so clearly. Also, [offensive coordinator Mike] Yurcich has developed me and really pushed me every single day, not letting me slip through the cracks on anything."
Clifford has completed 80.3 percent of his passes the past two games, overcoming some of the uncertainty of his first half at Wisconsin. He's feeling it now, as is Penn State.
If the Lions continue to get this kind of performance from their quarterback, they have an extremely high ceiling.
"I just feel really confident in what I'm doing," Clifford said. "I've always had confidence, but I feel really confident in our whole team. ... It's unbelievable what our team is doing right now."