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Veilleux, Lions answer sick call

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s quarterback position got stronger Saturday.

The Nittany Lions were coping with a strain of the flu that swept through the team and compromised availability for 35 players last week, including 21 because of the flu.

“Thursday, it looked like a hospital ward (in the Lasch Building),” James Franklin said after Penn State’s 28-0 win over Rutgers Saturday at Beaver Stadium. There was IVs everywhere. Friday was the same way.”

The casualties included all the scholarship quarterbacks, and during the final walk-through Friday, the staff was tentatively planning to start walk-on Mason Stahl.

“Mason took all the reps,” Franklin said.

More treatment Saturday morning allowed 14 players to play through the non-Covid illness.

Sean Clifford did not warm up initially but participated in Senior Day introductions. He tried to go but was ineffective, completing 2-of-8 for 23 yards and was clearly laboring.

He was removed after the first quarter in favor of freshman Christian Veilleux, who responded admirably. Veilleux completed 15-of-24 for 235 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

“Veilleux just kind of continued to get better,” Franklin said. “He’s gotten a better understanding of the game plan and the plays.”

A Canadian product who graduated from The Bullis School in Maryland and reported to Penn State in January, the 6-foot-4 Veilleux (who wears US and Canada decals on his helmet), showed a strong arm, touch and was alert at the line of scrimmage, also rushing for 36 yards on 10 scrambles.

“I want to give a big shoutout to Christian Veilleux,” standout senior receiver Jahan Dotson said. “Stepped in tremendously. It’s a tough job coming out here playing in front of a lot of people freshman year. He did a great job leading us today.”

Dotson’s 8-yard touchdown reception, on third-and-8, gave the Lions a 7-0 lead with 1:03 left in a punt-filled first half.

Veilleux engineered three touchdown drives in the second half.

“He’s a tremendous talent, has a tremendous arm, tremendous leadership skills,” Dotson said. “This was no surprise for me. Just because I know the kid that he is. I just can’t wait to see him develop and play in the future.”

Ah, the future.

Well, that begins next week at Michigan State, and it’s expected that Clifford, if healthy, will start against the Spartans, who are smarting from a 56-7 beatdown in Columbus but still have a chance to salvage a 10-2 season.

The problem is Clifford is not healthy, and it’s beyond the flu. His throwing indicated Saturday that his ribs, originally hurt Oct. 9 at Iowa and having taken a repeated pounding since, remain painful.

If Clifford is not ready or struggles, Veilleux, unlike Ta’Quan Roberson against the Hawkeyes, showed the offense can function under his watch.

Franklin was asked if he regrets not selecting Veilleux over Roberson as the original backup. He said no, saying the Iowa venue was a factor at the time.

“Ta’Quan had been in the program longer (three seasons) and really, it’s pretty obvious to everybody, that he gave us the best chance at that stage to win,” he said.

Franklin was right about that, though it appears to have been Roberson’s last chance. He wasn’t used when Clifford was hobbled against Illinois and hasn’t taken a snap in five weeks.

“They’re allowed to get better,” Franklin cracked in regard to Veilleux’s ascension and a nod to quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.

In that regard, Clifford’s unavailability provided a perfect chance to see if Veilleux can help the Lions finish 9-4 and be part of the succession plan for 2022, even though decorated freshman Drew Allar is expected to arrive in January.

Which is a lot more than Penn State knew about its quarterback options two days ago.

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Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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