How can Iowa slow Sean Clifford? Hawkeyes discuss keys to limiting Penn State's quarterback

Iowa's defense has made a habit of benching quarterbacks in 2021.

Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa was the latest to receive the Hawkeyes' defense harsh treatment in last Friday's 51-14 thrashing: 157 passing yards (compared to his 335 season average) and five interceptions (compared to one entering the game). 

Maryland coach Mike Locksley had no choice but to remove his starter from the game, making him the fourth coach in five weeks to do so. While benching quarterbacks isn't an official statistic or even a goal for Iowa's defense, this metric provides context to their early season success.

And it's certainly a point of pride for one of the nation's top defenses.

"It's given us a lot of confidence," veteran defensive back Kaevon Merriweather said. "I think we understand what we need to do. I think we're an experienced group now, with a young defensive line they have a lot more experience going on game six. We understand what needs to be done each and every week."

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This week's assignment? Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is a familiar opponent. Saturday's game will be the third meeting against Clifford and in 2019, he came into Kinnick Stadium and led the Nittany Lions to a 17-12 win. 

Without question, this will be the best version of Clifford yet. This season, he ranks third in the Big  Ten in passing yards (1336), passing touchdowns (11) and completion percentage (67.3%).

And like Iowa's Spencer Petras, he's riding an impressive winning streak of his own with nine straight victories as a starter. 

"(Clifford) is a veteran player, can make any throw that they ask him to make," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's a veteran player, a leader, a guy they look to." 

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Like any quarterback, the main component in stopping Clifford the passer is with consistent pressure by the defensive line. Fourth-ranked Penn State's offensive line shut out Indiana's defense in sacks in last Saturday's 24-0 win. Statistically, the matchup between the respective lines in this game is a toss-up. Penn State ranks sixth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (8) and Iowa ranks seventh in team sacks (13). 

"We need to get pressure in his face to get him off his mark," Hawkeye defensive lineman Logan Lee said. "Number one thing is push the pocket, collapse the pocket and try to get pressure and cause a disruption on the throw." 

Without pressure, Clifford's proven to be one of the most accurate passers in the country. According to Pro Football Focus, Clifford is completing 72% of his passes when in a clean pocket this season; this is an 8% upgrade since he first became the starter in 2019. 

A clean pocket for Clifford means he can connect with his top receiver Jahan Dotson at a dangerous rate. Dotson, like Clifford, has third-ranked Iowa's full attention in game planning. The two have connected for the most touchdowns in Penn State history (18) and Dotson has recorded at least one 20-yard reception in eight consecutive games. 

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Neutralize Clifford means neutralizing the big-play ability of Penn State's offense. 

"Everything," Ferentz said when asked what impressed him about Dotson. "That's what you have to realize: You're playing a team that can close the gap really fast because they've got some guys. He's one of those guys. He's the guy, really good guy." 

Like Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, Iowa's defense will face another mobile quarterback in Penn State's Sean Clifford.

Another dynamic to Clifford's game is ability with his legs. Penn State's offense doesn't use him much by design but his ability to extend the play has hurt Iowa before.  Flashback to the 2019 matchup, Clifford converted three different third downs by scrambling and extending the drive.

"As dangerous as anything" Ferentz said. "If it's not there for him, something opens up, he'll pull it down and go. He'll throw off the run or take it and make the yardage necessary for a first down or even more than that. That's where it all starts." 

Fortunately for Iowa, every quarterback they've faced this season has had some varying degree of mobility. According to defensive end John Waggoner, facing a mobile quarterback forces lineman to have their eyes in two places: On the lineman in front of them and the quarterback. 

"It's really important to see who we're rushing," Waggoner said. "You just have to know where you're at in relation to the quarterback. If he steps up, you might have to counter (against the offensive lineman) earlier; if he bounces out you might have to run flat down the line." 

In the backend of the defense, a similar challenge is present: Walking the line of staying close to your receiver while also paying attention to the backfield.

"Don't let him get 20 yards down the field before we see him running with the ball," Merriweather said. "Making sure we see the whole field, especially in zone defense. If he breaks the pocket, especially as a safety making sure we get up there and stop him kind of early." 

Easier said than done. But don't expect the Hawkeyes to deviate much from the plan that's been successful in the previous five weeks. And that plan includes forcing more turnovers, which Clifford hasn't done much of this season. He's also tied for third in the Big Ten in fewest interceptions (3).

"It's important to be on top of our keys and be in the right spot," Merriweather said. "They're going to make plays, they're a dynamic team with good receivers and a good quarterback. but being in the right spot to make that play and being on our keys will help limit that." 

Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com