After a horrific mistake, the much-maligned Sean Clifford led Penn State to a 35-31 victory over Purdue on Thursday night.
Early in the fourth quarter, Penn State appeared to be in complete control. The Nittany Lions led 28-24 with the ball near midfield when PSU senior quarterback Clifford threw his worst pass of the night.
Clifford left Mitchell Tinsley open in the middle, but Clifford mailed the ball into the arms of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson, who threw the wrong pass back for 72 yards for a touchdown, The Boilermakers led 31-28 with 8:29 remaining.
A stunned Clifford struggled on the next two possessions, but PSU’s defense stopped the offense’s final blow with 2:22 left.
Clifford, seemingly out of nowhere, took a big step.
Clifford led an eight-game, 80-yard drive in just 57 seconds. In the process, Clifford completed six passes for 72 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown with 57 seconds left.
Purdue’s offense would get one last try, but couldn’t get past the midfielder as Penn State’s defense clinched an exciting season-opening win.
It was a stunning turn for Clifford and the Nittany Lions, whose offense was inconsistent all night. But PSU was able to make a difference when it mattered and escape West Lafayette with a brave victory.
Game Features 7 Leading Changes
The lead changed hands six more times before Penn State’s epic victory.
Purdue led 10-7 late in the first half before Penn State scored twice in the final two minutes of the second quarter. First, Clifford gave the Nittany Lions a 14-10 lead with a two-yard sneak.
On the possession that followed, Purdue drove the ball deep into PSU territory before fumbling in the red zone with 30 seconds left in the half.
After three games, Clifford hit the ground running. He escaped from the right pocket and found tight end Brenton Strange. Oddly, multiple Purdue tacklers bounced and took off for a 67-yard touchdown that gave PSU a 21-10 lead with two seconds to go.
The third quarter, though, was all Purdue.
Aidan O’Connell and Purdue’s offense were able to provoke Penn State’s defense with Iowa’s move to Charlie Jones doing most of the damage at receiver. Jones caught 12 passes for 153 yards in Purdue’s debut, including a 7-yard touchdown catch with 1:11 left in the third quarter.
Jones’ scoring capped 10 of the Boilermakers’ 81-yard drive, their second touchdown of 75 or more yards in the third quarter, turning a 21-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead.
Clifford almost lost a bad INT
After a lifeless third quarter, PSU’s defense forced Purdue two 3-in-1 and the offense scored a touchdown in between to start the fourth. Clifford hit KeAndre Lambert-Smith with a 29-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 10:44 to give PSU a 28-24 lead.
On the next possession, Penn State looked ready to take full control of the game – until Clifford made a huge mistake, sending that erroneous pass over the top of an open Tinsley and into Jay. Ferson’s arms.
It looked like the six would spell doom for the Nittany Lions, but Purdue’s offense couldn’t overtime. Passing-happy boilermakers keep pitching, keeping precious time.
Ultimately, PSU’s defense came down, setting the stage for Clifford and PSU’s offense to win the game in incredible fashion.
What does this mean for Penn State?
As with the past two seasons, it’s a huge win for James Franklin’s plans.
PSU finished the 2021 campaign with an 11-11 record in 2020 and 2021, including a 7-6 loss in six of eight games. The Nittany Lions seemed to be underwhelming in so many close games, but they found a way to win this game in a rowdy environment. Clifford, in particular, has been criticized throughout his career, but he showed great balance in this winning game.
When Clifford was healthy last fall, Penn State looked like a very good team. But once Clifford was injured against Iowa State, the wheel came off with little depth behind him. This year, PSU was popular with freshman Drew Allar, who made his locker room debut with an unspecified injury when Clifford started the third quarter in the locker room.
Clifford could be frustrating for PSU’s fanbase, and a brutal interception like this is a clear example of why many fans are asking for Allar or one of the other young QBs on the roster. Meanwhile, the two-minute pivotal drill showed why Franklin and the staff were happy to have Clifford back for another year.
That’s another tough road game before conference play resumes — the trip to Auburn — to keep going.