After a horrible mistake, the much-maligned Sean Clifford led Penn State on a game-winning drive to give the Nittany Lions a thrilling 35-31 win over Purdue on Thursday night.
Earlier in the fourth, Penn State appeared to be in complete control. The Nittany Lions had a 28-24 lead and the ball near midfield when Clifford, PSU’s sixth-year senior quarterback, threw his worst pass of the night.
Clifford had Mitchell Tinsley open up the middle, but Clifford lofted it into the arms of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson, who returned the errant pass 72 yards to put the Boilermakers ahead 31-28 with 8:29 to play. end.
A shell-shocked Clifford fought hard on its next two possessions, but PSU’s defense made a stop to give the offense one last shot with 2:22 left.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Clifford rose in a big way.
Clifford led an 8-play, 80-yard drive that took just 57 seconds off the clock. In the process, Clifford completed 6-of-7 passes for 72 yards, including the game-winning 10-yard touchdown to running back Keyvone Lee with 57 seconds left.
Purdue’s offense would get one last drive, but couldn’t clear midfield as Penn State’s defense sealed a thrilling season-opening victory.
It was a surprising turn of events for Clifford and the Nittany Lions, who struggled for much of the night. But PSU was able to make the plays when it mattered and pull away from West Lafayette with a thrilling win.
The game featured 7 candidate changes
Before Penn State’s epic win, the lead changed hands six more times.
Purdue held a 10-7 lead 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 via a two-yard touchdown run.
On the ensuing possession, Purdue drove the ball deep into PSU territory before entering the red zone with 30 seconds left in the half.
Three plays later, Clifford made a big play. He broke out of the pocket on the right and found Brenton Strange. Strange bounced around several Purdue tacklers and took off for a 67-yard touchdown, giving PSU a 21-10 lead just two seconds before halftime.
The third quarter, though, was all Purdue.
Aidan O’Connell and the Purdue offense were able to pick apart Penn State’s defense with Iowa transfer Charlie Jones doing most of the damage at receiver. Jones caught 12 passes for 153 yards in his Purdue debut, including a 7-yard touchdown run with 1:11 left in the third quarter.
That Jones score capped a 10-play, 81-yard drive for the Boilermakers, their second 75-yard touchdown of the third quarter to turn that 21-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead.
Clifford almost lost the game with a terrible INT
After a lackluster third quarter, PSU’s defense forced two Purdue 3-and-outs while the offense scored a touchdown in between. Clifford hit KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a 29-yard catch-and-run touchdown to put PSU ahead 28-24 with 10:44 to play.
On its next possession, Penn State looked poised to take complete control of the game — until Clifford made this huge mistake, lobbing that errant pass over an open Tinsley head and into Jefferson’s arms.
It looked like that pick-6 would doom the Nittany Lions, but Purdue’s offense couldn’t stop the clock. The pass-happy Boilermakers continued to run the ball, keeping valuable time on the clock.
Ultimately, the PSU defense came off the field and set the table for Clifford and the PSU offense to win the game in improbable fashion.
What does this mean for Penn State?
The way the last two seasons have gone, this was a big win for James Franklin’s program.
PSU went a combined 11-11 in 2020 and 2021, including closing the 2021 campaign by losing six of eight to finish 7-6. The Nittany Lions seemed to come up short in so many close games, but found a way to win this one in a raucous environment. Clifford has been heavily criticized throughout his career, but he showed tremendous poise in this game-winner.
When Clifford was healthy last fall, Penn State looked like a very good team. But once Clifford got hurt against Iowa, the wheels came off with so little depth behind him. This year, PSU has established freshman Drew Allar at pass rush, and he made his debut when Clifford started the third quarter in the locker room with an unspecified injury.
Clifford can be frustrating for PSU fans, and a play like this brutal interception is a clear example of why many fans have clamored for Allar or one of the other young QBs on the roster. At the same time, a two-minute clutch drill shows why Franklin and staff were happy to have Clifford back for another year.
This is an effort to keep up with another tough road game — a trip to Auburn — on the horizon before conference play resumes.