No. 11 Penn State used a strong second half and took advantage of a key Utah injury to power past the eighth-ranked Utes 35-21 to win just the second Rose Bowl in program history and first since 1995. That push was led by Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford, who capped off a lengthy and successful career with one of his best games. The senior went 16 of 22 for 279 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns while firing off accurate throws all evening.
While Clifford was the highlight of the evening, Utah's quarterback situation also marked a key storyline in the game. Utes quarterback Cameron Rising exited in the third quarter with a left leg injury with his team trailing 21-14. Backup quarterback Bryson Barnes struggled in relief, throwing an interception on his first drive and failing to get Utah on the scoreboard until garbage time. Running backs Ja'Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard combined for 140 yards and a touchdown, but it was not enough.
After Rising went out, Penn State scored a pair of touchdowns to put the game away, including an 88-yard touchdown pass from Clifford to KeAndre Lambert-Smith. The Penn State ground game was effective, too. Running back Nicholas Singleton broke the game open with an 87-yard touchdown scamper, one of two on the day, as he cleared the 100-yard rushing plateau for the fourth time this season.
Let's break down the key takeaways from Penn State's win over Utah in the Rose Bowl.
Clifford had a few extra opportunities thanks to a six-year career in Happy Valley, but he leaves as an all-time player for the Nittany Lions after a fantastic Rose Bowl. The senior completed 73% of his passes in one of the most productive and efficient games of his lengthy career.
With the victory, Clifford joins Kerry Collins as the only quarterback to lead Penn State to a Rose Bowl victory. Clifford, who already led the program in career passing yards and passing touchdowns, also passed Trace McSorley for the most total yardage in program history. He walks away as the program leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, completion percentage, completions and pass attempts, and he is is tied for the winningest quarterback in program history at 31 victories.
Penn State fans are excited for the Drew Allar era to start in 2023, but Clifford will forever be a legend in State College for his efforts.
Disappointing end for Utah
Utah put together one of the best two-year runs in program history with consecutive 10-win seasons and Pac-12 championships. However, the Utes once again fell short in the "Granddaddy of Them All" to end the year on a sour note.
The Utes were in a great position to compete for the win until Rising went down with his leg injury. While he completed just 8 of 21 of his passes, Rising's rushing ability was critical in keeping Utah on schedule. The injury brought to mind Rising's exit from last year's Rose Bowl against Ohio State when he sustained a head injury in the fourth quarter, and another early exit in Utah's bowl game is a disappointing finish to an otherwise good season.
Rising has not yet declared for the NFL Draft, but if this is the end of his career, he deserved a better finish than this.
There were a few bright spots. Running backs Jackson and Bernard looked ready for the moment, and receiver Devaughn Vele posted his first 100-yard receiving performance. However, the Utes are set to lose a boatload of talent. Coach Kyle Whittingham's program will be tested this offseason after two years of success.
Penn State finds rushing success
Penn State leaned on its freshman running backs to capture an 11-win season. However, the Rose Bowl gave an even better preview of the outstanding future around the corner. Singleton changed the game with his lengthy touchdown run, and the Nittany Lions had success with unique looks that put both he and Kaytron Allen in position to score.
In 2021, Penn State ranked No. 118 nationally in rushing offense. This season, the Nittany Lions jumped up to No. 43 behind the freshmen running backs. With Singleton and Allen back -- along with tackles Olu Fashanu and Caedan Wallace spurning the NFL Draft -- Penn State should be one of the best running teams in America in 2023. That would mark a massive improvement from what has been one of the team's weaknesses in recent years.