Penn State beat Purdue 35-31 in a thrilling season opener Thursday and saw seven lead changes and Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford fought through an entire emotional run in one night. It looked as if Penn State would be in control of the game early on, finding Clifford Brenton Strange for a 67-yard pass with two seconds left to give the Nittany Lions a 21-10 lead. It was a short-lived lead once the second half started.
The Boilermakers dominated the third quarter, putting together two touchdown pushes and keeping Penn State 33 yards off the attack for a 24-21 lead. Penn State regained the lead early in the fourth quarter when Clifford found KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a pass up to 29 yards, but the game was far from over.
Two minutes later, after Perdue went out with three goals. Clifford sailed a fine pass over Mitchell Tinsley’s head and into the arms of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson. Jefferson took the ball 72 yards home to give Purdue the lead, and it looked as if Penn State night was over. The Nittany Lions managed only 14 yards from their next possession and had to jump, but the Boilermakers couldn’t put the final nail in the coffin, which cost them.
Penn State got the ball back with 2:22 to play, and the Nittany Lions collected 8 plays, 80 yards in 1:25, with Clifford making his fourth touch of the night, this time by KeyVone Lee, who scored from 12 yards.
1. Shaun Clifford, player
Clifford has had a blast for nearly the entire 2021 season, and it appears he’s been dealing with some kind of injury throughout his career. He started the game with two goals on his left knee and seemed to exacerbate the injury when he was hit in the second quarter. Clifford stayed put and finished the inning, throwing 67 yards to Strange, but did not take the field for Penn State’s second-half possession.
He walked out of the locker room with the team, but was seen returning to it when Bordeaux opened the half with the ball. Freshman Drew Allar held a five-star series prior to Clifford’s return. After the match, James Franklin said Clifford was dealing with cramps. When interviewed by Fox’s Jenny Taft, Clifford said he had “minor injuries and alterations”. Whatever the case, Clifford didn’t look at full power for most of the second half, and thought it would cost the Penn State game.
I even wondered if Nittany Lions would be better off returning to Allar, as Clifford seemed to lack mobility, and the fact that so many of his throws were high made me wonder if he wasn’t planting on that left leg.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. As he had done many times before, Clifford screwed it up and helped lead his team to a win. His four passes equaled a career-level relegation.
2. People will wonder about Purdue’s late-playing call
Purdue led 31-28 over Chris Jefferson’s pick of six with 8:29 left in the game. Boilermakers had two more possessions and opportunities to burn the clock, but they ran 11 plays for 26 yards and, most importantly, only 3:43 off the clock. Boilermakers called 13 passing plays to only one rush (two were called back on penalties), and Penn State shortfalls allowed time-outs to be maintained.
Bordeaux coach Jeff Brohm is obviously going to second guess, and I understand why. Having said that, I also understand Prum’s thought process. Perdue’s quick attack averaged a worst 2.79 yards per carry last season. Against Penn State, it improved to 4.1 per carry (not including bags). Broome may have thought running the ball would burn more time but it would do three. He chose to be aggressive and rely on what his team does best: throw the ball. It didn’t work out, so he’d have to suffer the consequences, but I didn’t hate the decision, even if I didn’t completely agree.
3. Pennsylvania won, but there are still serious concerns
Wins are wins, and Pennsylvania won’t bring it back, but I wouldn’t get too excited. First of all, the Penn State offensive line hasn’t played well for what appears to be a 50th straight year. Nittany Lions deployed the ball in a run but averaged only 3.4 yards per carry (not including sacks), and no one 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 the Penn State team had two in the evening, but they struggled to generate pressure all night. When they did, it resulted in the new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz executing a lightning strike.
Arnold Ipeketty had 9.5 sacks to lead this defense last season, but there have been questions about who will step up to fill his boots this season. In one of the matches, this question was not answered. The good news is that Pennsylvania still has an excellent minor, but one can only do so much if the top four don’t generate stress on their own.
4. Charlie Jones has already paid off for Purdue
Iowa fans could be heard swearing all night because the Iowa move was a fantastic debut for the Boilermakers. He finished with 12 catches for 153 yards and touchdowns. Jones only had 21 passes for 323 yards all last season with the hockey family.