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Smeltzer: Good for Keyvone Lee

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Keyvone Lee

WEST LAYFFETTE, Ind. – Everybody wants to write about Sean Clifford.

I want to write about Keyvone Lee.

I’ll discuss Clifford a little bit, too. After all, his game-winning touchdown pass to Lee against Purdue Thursday night is the inspiration for this column, so its only fair.

Clifford, whose time as Penn State’s starter has been a three-year roller coaster ride, summed up his college football career with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes; one to Purdue and one to the right team.

In a close game such as Penn State’s 35-31 win at Ross-Ade Stadium, the starting quarterback’s performance is almost always a big deal. That holds especially true when the starting quarterback is somebody as polarizing as Clifford has become over his time at Penn State.

Now, let’s talk Lee.

In the game’s last minute, Penn State trailed by three and had the ball on Purdue’s 10-yard line.
Clifford connected with Lee,  and Lee easily ran in to score the winning touchdown.

Lee only scored twice last year, and his first touchdown of 2022 is the biggest of his life.

“He’s had ups and downs himself as well,” Clifford told reporters after the game. “Starting in 2020, you know, we were kind of battling that year, and then last year, (there was) a lot of talk about the run game. Just to see Keyvone show up in a big moment like that was huge for him, and as a friend of his, obviously, I’m just excited for him.”

“That opportunity, Lee said, “that moment came, and it just changed my whole perspective.”

Lee was smiling, and he deserved to be.

His college career has featured plenty to frown about.

Lee’s time at Penn State has been weird.

The running back has turned in solid work in his first two seasons, averaging a shade under five yards a carry in both 2020 and ’21.

Yet, despite nobody proving themselves as superior to him in Penn State’s backfield, it never felt like the Penn State coaching staff went all in on Lee as its guy.

Take New Year’s Day, for example.

In Penn State’s Outback Bowl against Arkansas, Lee averaged 8.8 yards per carry.

The problem was he only ran the ball four times, inspiring this opinion piece from yours truly.

Despite Clifford having one of his worst games—a 31.3 quarterback rating— Penn State ignored the run game, and although that might not have been the reason it lost to Arkansas, it didn’t help.

Things might not get better for Lee in 2022. He had a hard enough time breaking through when Penn State didn’t have a National High School Player of the Year award winner in Nick Singleton in the backfield, and if Week 1 was any indication, four-star Kaytron Allen will get his share of carries as well.

Penn State used all three backs Thursday. Lee and Singleton each ran the ball nine times, and Allen wasn’t behind with eight rushes.

So, for now, Penn State is going by committee, which puts Lee on track to be right where he’s been for most of his Penn State career; a face in the crowd.

There’s a chance Lee could become even more obscure. Maybe Singleton will become Penn State’s undisputed featured back. Maybe Allen will outplay Lee. Who knows.

But Lee now has a signature moment that will appear in Penn State pump-up videos for years to come and, depending on how the next few seasons go, could be looked back at as a turning point in program history.

Good for him.

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