WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The flashing lights at Ross-Ade Stadium and the roar of the Purdue faithful seemed to tell the story: Penn State was about to cost itself the season opener with a critical mistake from the most experienced man on the field.
On television, announcers openly wondered if Sean Clifford could do the job in the fourth quarter after handing Purdue the lead with a pick-six off a terrible pass. On social media, Nittany Lion fans called for heralded freshman Drew Allar to take over — a call that only intensified when he began warming up after Clifford’s interception.
The receiver was wide open. Please put Allar in.
— Daniel (@BornToDiePoor) September 2, 2022
Clifford heard none of this. All he had on his mind was making the most of one last drive, and when his chance came, he delivered.
After doing next to nothing for almost the whole second half, the senior came to life on Penn State’s last possession. On the final drive, Clifford hit six of seven passes for 73 yards, allowing Penn State to chew through 80 yards in just 57 seconds.
Keyvone Lee dashed into the end zone after Clifford found him a step ahead of Purdue linebacker Clyde Washington, and not long after that, the Nittany Lions officially nailed down an improbable 35-31 win over the Boilermakers, with Clifford answering the bell when it mattered most.
“I just had to get the ball in the best players’ hands,” Clifford told reporters after the game. “All I had to do was get the ball out quick; I was happy with the tempo we played with and the O-line held in fantastically.
“Our playmakers made the plays. I’ve said all the time that we’ve got great playmakers; I’ve just got to give it to them.”
Clifford didn’t include himself in that, but the rest of the team (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) readily gave him credit for stepping up in the final minutes. As soon as Clifford stepped out of the locker room for interviews, the crowd around cornerback Joey Porter Jr. quickly dissipated to talk to the quarterback, leading Clifford to apologize and Porter Jr. to laugh it off and tell Clifford he’d earned the attention.
“I thought Sean played great,” Porter Jr. said. “He held the tempo, he controlled the offense and he did what he had to do and got the win.”
That included overcoming some early season cramping, which might have cost Clifford some momentum and led to his difficult second half. In the first half, Clifford made several excellent reads, completing 8 of 15 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns to give Penn State an 11-point halftime lead.
But when the team returned to the field for the second half, Allar was the one under center.
Because of the cramps, Clifford needed an IV at halftime and wasn’t ready to go until Penn State’s second series of the second half. When he returned, it appeared his rhythm was off, which culminated in his overthrow of Mitchell Tinsley that became a 72-yard interception return score for Purdue DB Chris Jefferson. To make matters worse, Clifford’s cramps returned on that play, leading Allar to warm up.
Still, Penn State coach James Franklin never considered changing quarterbacks as long as Clifford could play. When it mattered most, Franklin wanted the ball in Clifford’s hands.
“At the end of day, I thought experience there really mattered, especially on that last drive,” Franklin said. “It was a tough win, and to be able to win it in a two-minute drive, we’ve had a few of these over the years. With Sean’s experience and confidence, we were able to make some plays and get it going.
“Sean has showed character through his entire career. The guy knows he made a mistake, and you don’t need to come to the sideline and get your head ripped off. I was proud with how the whole organization handled it. He’ll grow from this as well, even though he’s a 38-year-old eighth-year-senior.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there was no denying that Clifford handled the pressure of the game and the Boilermakers (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) like a veteran on the final possession. Of Penn State’s final eight plays, only an incomplete pass failed to gain at least seven yards, allowing the Nittany Lions to leave West Lafayette with an equally improbable and satisfying result.
“It was an up-and-down game that had a lot of mistakes, but we won,” Clifford said. “It’s crazy.”