Penn State Football 2020 Season Position Grades: Offense

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports) /
1 of 5

Penn State Football put a bow on the 2020 season by defeating Illinois 56-21, ending the year with four straight victories and building momentum into 2021.

Following Saturday night’s 56-21 victory over the Fighting Illini, Penn State Football decided to forego a bowl game, finishing the season on a four game winning streak.

After starting 0-5, in the midst of a quarterback controversy, it appeared the sky was falling on James Franklin’s program. However, much to the credit of this staff and players, the Nittany Lions found a second wind and rattled off four straight, all be it against opponents with a combined record of 9-21.

Even still, there was a lot to like about the way Penn State football finished the season, the offense taking shape on the backs of two freshmen in Keyvone Lee and Parker Washington, and quarterback Sean Clifford beginning to look like the guy we saw in 2019.

Penn State football had to overcome a significant amount of losses this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Just as the season was about to get underway, we learned running back Journey Brown had a heart condition that would end his football career, while three carries into the first drive of the season, Noah Cain suffered an ankle injury that would sideline him for the year. If that was not enough star power to lose, tight end Pat Freiermuth suffered a shoulder injury and was shut down after playing only four games.

Despite all the injuries, and a new offense being installed under coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca in a abbreviated offseason, the offense finished second in the conference in yards per game(430) to only Ohio State, and fourth in the conference in points a game(29.8).

Here is a deep dive on offensive positional grades for the 2020 season for Penn State football:


Grade: C+

Franklin was faced with his first ever quarterback controversy in his tenure with Penn State Football, when he benched Sean Clifford in favor of Will Levis week 4 at Nebraska. Levis went on to start the next game against Iowa, eventually being benched later in that contest for Clifford who would secure the starting role for the remainder of the season.

Under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, Clifford was expected to take a big step forward this year but it seems at times he regressed. To be fair, the offseason was anything but normal and it is fair to question how much of this new offense Ciarrocca was truly able to install.

The redshirt junior threw for 1,883 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also rushing for 335 yards and three scores. His Achilles heel was turnovers, throwing nine interceptions and fumbling three times. His two first half turnovers against Indiana and Nebraska stand out as a few that put Penn State football in a early first half hole they ultimately could not climb out of. In 2019, Clifford was seen as a very good “game manager” but it is tough to be a game manager when you are turning the ball over at the rate he was early in the season.

To his credit, the benching may have been the kick in the pants he needed, as he looked much more like the quarterback we saw in 2019 down the stretch run of the season. Over the four game winning streak, Clifford was efficient, completing an average of 66% of his passes, scoring seven touchdowns to only two turnovers. His ability to make plays with his legs was crucial at times, even scoring three rushing touchdowns of over 30 yards this season.

Oddly enough, it seems the loss of Freiermuth may have forced Clifford to depend more on other options in the offense. It seemed once the all-American tight end was out, he was spreading the ball around, feeding wide receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington more.

It is yet to be seen who will be under center when the Nittany Lions open the 2021 season at Wisconsin, however if it is Clifford it’s because he is a leader of this team, and seems to have total buy in from his teammates.