Editor’s note: This story appeared on a special “Peach” page in the sports section of Friday’s Star Tribune. Pick up any edition of Friday’s paper to check it out.
Tanner Morgan and Sean Clifford were promised only an opportunity to compete for the starting jobs at Minnesota and Penn State, respectively. Many assumed they ultimately would serve as backups.
Instead, both rank in the top 10 nationally in quarterback rating on 8-0 teams entering Saturday’s showdown between No. 4 Penn State and No. 17 Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.
Both quarterbacks became starters when circumstances ended their competitions. A foot injury in Gophers fall camp sidelined Zack Annexstad, clearing the path for Morgan to remain the starter after finishing last season in that role. Coach P.J. Fleck declared it an open competition entering camp, creating a sense that Annexstad would be the front-runner again.
This past spring, Penn State coach James Franklin declined to name senior Tommy Stevens as Trace McSorley’s successor despite Stevens serving as his longtime backup.
People around the program expected Stevens to win the starting job, but he transferred to Mississippi State as a graduate in May rather than take part in a competition. That opened the door for Clifford, a redshirt sophomore.
Both quarterbacks have maximized their opportunities once they got them.
Morgan is 12-2 as a starter dating to last season and ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency. He has completed 65.3% of his passes for 1,761 yards and 18 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
“He manages the offense really well,” Franklin said. “They have got a lot of confidence in him. He’s playing at a high level right now.”
The same statement applies to Clifford, who leads the Big Ten in total offense and is second in passing yards per game. Clifford has thrown 20 touchdown passes compared to only three interceptions, and his versatility as a runner makes him doubly dangerous.
He leads his team in rushing attempts with 77 — nearly 10 per game. Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber said Penn State uses quarterback draws more than any opponent they have faced this season. And Clifford is quick to escape the pocket when he drops back to pass.
“If he doesn’t have a first, second or third read, he’s not afraid to pull the ball down and run because he’s a great runner,” Fleck said. “He runs like a tailback. He’s elusive, can run, has great vision. You’ve got a guy who doesn’t just take sacks. Nor does he throw a lot of incompletions or interceptions because he knows he can pull it down and run and get the first down.”