Penn State vs. Purdue score, takeaways: Sean Clifford throws game-winning TD after back-breaking pick six

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 at career-high.

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.

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