Penn State vs. Purdue score, takeaways: Sean Clifford throws game-winning TD after back-breaking pick six
The Nittany Lions had to rally late, but pulled out a road victory vs. the Boilermakers to open the season
Penn State beat Purdue 35-31 in a thrilling season-opener Thursday that saw seven lead changes and Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford go through an entire career's worth of emotion in one night. It looked as though Penn State would take control of the game early, as Clifford found Brenton Strange for a 67-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left before halftime to give the Nittany Lions a 21-10 lead. It was a lead that didn't last long once the second half began.
The Boilermakers dominated the third quarter, putting together two touchdown drives and holding Penn State to 33 yards of offense to storm to a 24-21 lead. Penn State took the lead back early in the fourth quarter when Clifford found KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a 29-yard touchdown pass, but the game was far from over.
Two minutes later, after Purdue went three-and-out. Clifford sailed a pass well over target Mitchell Tinsley's head and into the eager arms of Purdue's Chris Jefferson. Jefferson took the ball 72 yards to the house to give Purdue the lead back, and it looked as if Penn State's night was done. The Nittany Lions managed only 14 yards on their next two possessions and were forced to punt, but the Boilermakers could not put the final nail in the coffin, which cost them.
Penn State got the ball one more time with 2:22 left to play, and the Nittany Lions put together an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in 1:25, with Clifford throwing his fourth touchdown of the night, this time to KeyVone Lee, who scored from 12 yards out.
1. Sean Clifford is a gamer
Clifford was banged up nearly the entire 2021 season, and it feels like he's been dealing with some kind of injury his entire career. He began the game with a brace on his left knee and looked to aggravate the injury when taking a hit in the second quarter. Clifford stayed in and finished the half, throwing the 67-yard touchdown to Strange, but he did not take the field for Penn State's opening possession of the second half.
He came out of the locker room with the team but was seen returning to it when Purdue opened the half with the ball. Five-star freshman Drew Allar filled in for a series before Clifford returned. After the game, James Franklin said Clifford was dealing with cramps. When interviewed by Fox's Jenny Taft, Clifford said he was dealing with "minor injuries and tweaks." Whatever the case, Clifford did not look at full strength for most of the second half, and I thought it would cost Penn State the game.
I even wondered if the Nittany Lions would be better off going back to Allar, as Clifford seemed to lack mobility, and the fact so many of his throws were high had me wondering if he wasn't planting on that left leg.
In the end, it didn't matter. As he's done many times before, Clifford gutted it out and helped lead his team to a comeback win. His four touchdown passes tied a career-high.
"I didn't play my best ball... but in the end you have to win the game and that's what we did."@PennStateFball's QB Sean Clifford talks with @JennyTaft about leading his team to victory in the final minutes of the game ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/Bhv0liaYFS— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 2, 2022
2. People are going to question Purdue's late play-calling
Purdue took a 31-28 lead on Chris Jefferson's pick six with 8:29 left in the game. The Boilermakers had two more possessions and chances to burn the clock, but ran 11 plays for 26 yards and, more importantly, only 3:43 off the clock. The Boilermakers called 13 passing plays to only one rush (two were called back on penalties), and the incompletions allowed Penn State to conserve timeouts.
Obviously, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will be second-guessed, and I understand why. That said, I also understand Brohm's thought process. Purdue's rushing attack averaged a nation's worst 2.79 yards per carry last season. Against Penn State it improved to 4.1 per carry (not including sacks). Brohm probably believed running the ball would burn more clock but lead to three-and-outs. He chose to be aggressive and lean on what his team does best: throw the ball. It didn't work, so he'll have to live with the consequences, but I didn't hate the decision, even if I didn't entirely agree.
3. Penn State got the win, but there are still serious concerns
Wins are wins, and Penn State won't give them back, but I wouldn't get too excited. First of all, Penn State's offensive line did not play well for what feels like the 50th consecutive year. The Nittany Lions spread the ball around in the running game but averaged only 3.4 yards per carry (not including sacks), and nobody on the team averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry.
On the defensive side of the ball, the game ended on a sack, and Penn State picked up two on the evening, but they struggled to generate pressure all night. When they did, it resulted from new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz bringing a blitz.
Arnold Ebikitie had 9.5 sacks to lead this defense last season, but there were questions about who would step up to fill his shoes this season. One game in, that question hasn't been answered. The good news is Penn State still has an excellent secondary, but secondaries can only do so much if the front four aren't generating pressure on their own.
4. Charlie Jones has already paid off for Purdue
Iowa fans could be heard cursing all night as the Iowa transfer had a fantastic debut for the Boilermakers. He finished with 12 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown. Jones caught only 21 passes for 323 yards all of last season with the Hawkeyes.
FINAL: PENN STATE 35, PURDUE 31
Penn State's late comeback spoils Purdue's comeback.
1-0— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) September 2, 2022
Johnny Dixon comes in on a corner blitz and gets to O'Connell for a 10-yard loss. Purdue has to burn a timeout. 35 seconds left, ball at the PU 21.
The Purdue drive starts at the 19
53 seconds left
TOUCHDOWN PENN STATE!
Where did that come from? Penn State goes 80 yards in eight plays and 1:25 with Sean Clifford finding Keyvone Lee for a 10-yard TD pass. It's 35-31 Nittany Lions with 57 seconds left. Purdue has two timeouts left. Wow.
Big play to Mitchell Tinsley
A 28-yard pass down the left sideline has Penn State in FG range and closing in on the red zone.
Penn State gets one more shot
Purdue can't pick up a first down as Aidan O'Connell underthrows Sheffield on third down. Penn State gets the ball at the PSU 20 following a touchback. There's 2:22 left and the Lions have two timeouts.
3rd down. Still, that's better than an interception.
Results > Process
Aidan O'Connell is chased out of the pocket, lofts a pass he should have never thrown in that situation, and is bailed out by an unbelievable grab from Payne Durham. They're reviewing it, but no matter the result, O'Connell made a terrible decision and got away with it.
HUGE 1st down for Purdue
O'Connell hits Charlie Jones yet again for another 1st down and keeps the clock moving.
Another three-and-out for Penn State
Three straight incompletions from Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lions are punting again. At least they didn't have to use any timeouts? Also, Penn State fans will wonder why there wasn't a defensive holding call on third down. I always side with letting them play, so I'd disagree, but I'd also empathize. Either way, 4:28 to go and it's Purdue ball at the PU 23.
Purdue shoots self in the foot
Purdue burns only 1:30 of clock as it tries to move the ball through the air, but a chop block and a delay of game destroy the drive. Penn STate gets the ball back at the PSU 27 with 4:50 to play and all three timeouts remaining.
Penn State forced to punt
Penn State should consider going back to Drew Allar. Sean Clifford's accuracy is off. His receivers aren't helping him much by getting separation, but his throws are either high or behind them. Purdue gets the ball back with 6:27 to play at its 31. PEnn State still has all three timeouts.
PICK SIX PURDUE
Sean Clifford overthrows his target by about a mile and his pass floats into the eager arms of Chris Jefferson who takes it 72 yards to the house and just like that Purdue is back in front 31-28. Wow. What a momentum shift. 8:29 to play.
CHRIS JEFFERSON PICK-SIX TOUCHDOWN!— Purdue Football (@BoilerFootball) September 2, 2022