Sean Clifford of Penn State, who turned 24 this summer, is older than seven prospective NFL starting quarterbacks. Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, who turns 24 on Thursday when the Boilermakers hosts Penn State, is over six years old.
They are both sixth-year seniors and lead active lives off the pitch. O’Connell, who has a master’s degree, got married this summer. Clifford, who is pursuing a second bachelor’s degree, co-founded the NIL agency.
They also have another thing in common: Clifford and O’Connell returned to American football, daring to be great.
“Do I want to make this year special? Of course,” Clifford said. “I want this year to be the biggest, worst year I’ve ever had. I want to end it the way I see it.”
The comparisons between Clifford and O’Connell, who will fight at 8 pm ET Thursday on FOX, are stark. They are experienced quarterbacks, living their future now, knowing that everything is unpredictable.
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Since arriving at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018, Clifford has had four offensive coordinators, and only one has been in the starting lineup for more than a year. O’Connell joined Purdue’s roster that year as an assistant and did not play in his first two seasons.
Clifford turned 24 in July, making him older than seven prospective NFL players: San Francisco’s Trey Lance, Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, Chicago’s Justin Fields, Houston’s Davis Mills, New England’s Mack Jones, Jets’ Zach Wilson and Jalen Hurts of Philadelphia. O’Connell is older than six of them; Hurts beat O’Connell to 24 in about three weeks.
Clifford takes the jokes, as does O’Connell. Penn State coach James Franklin said of Clifford that “he is 45 years old and teaches classes”, referring to Clifford working as a teaching assistant. Jeff Brom of Purdue said that O’Connell’s experience on and off the field made it less likely that he would lose his temper.
“He’s very comfortable where he is in life,” Brom told The Athletic.
As did Clifford. Until this season, he always had another rookie. Knowing that this will be his last fight gives Clifford perspective and motivation.
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“It definitely has a bit more sentimental value to me,” he said. “A chance to play with my brother [Liam] one more year and then just play more football at Penn State. This place has given me so much. I just enjoyed every minute spent here.”
Clifford is more experienced than O’Connell, having started more than twice as many games (33-15). But O’Connell had a much better year in 2021 even though he only started nine games.
O’Connell set a Purdue hitting record (71.8 percent) and tied Drew Brees in 500-yard passing (two). He threw for 534 yards and five touchdowns against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl despite missing two of his best receivers.
Teammates are appreciating Clifford’s impact on leadership and trust, even though the quarterback had a strong camp. Safety G’Air Brown said Clifford made some games that only veterans are capable of.
“Sean made some crazy games that being a six-year-old can’t be defended,” Brown said. “He reads the defense very well. His leadership qualities are simply amazing. We expected Sean to show up this season… and he’s going to do something special for us this year.”
The most exciting part of their duel will come when you blink. Clifford and O’Connell have had success and the scars that experience brings, so both should be able to respond appropriately.
Clifford, at least, is confident that it will.
“I’m much more confident [than he was at the beginning of 2021]said Clifford, simply knowing what [offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich] wants to achieve and what this offense wants to achieve in every game. Not that I don’t [know] last year, but it’s just a different sense of confidence. I’ve seen a lot more.”
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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinions, and perspectives on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for over 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles, and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWohenrich. And consider subscribing (button on homepage) to get more great content on the SI.com network.