Penn State’s up-and-coming defense covered for a sluggish and slow-starting offense, leading the Lions to a 35-16 victory Saturday over Michigan State.

Sean Clifford tied the program record with his 31st victory in 4 years as Penn State’s starter, but didn’t play a huge role in the outcome until late. The 6th-year senior had just 70 passing yards at halftime, and his 3rd-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Warren was set up a a special teams’ takeaway.

More importantly for the Lions, they reached 10 victories — winning every game they were favored in while losing only to Michigan and Ohio State, which are a combined 23-1 after the Wolverines blasted the Buckeyes in a top 5 showdown earlier on Saturday.

With Clemson losing to South Carolina to close its regular season, Penn State should wind up in the top 10 of all the rankings, setting up the program for a high-level bowl game.

Michigan State, as has been its history, didn’t yield easily against the Lions. Even short-handed in the wake of suspensions following the tunnel incident at Michigan, the Spartans battled into the fourth quarter. They were still entertaining thoughts of beating the Lions for the 4th time in 6 years. Payton Thorne, under duress on almost every play, made enough clutch throws to keep his team in range.

Early in the fourth quarter, he capped an 11-play, 70-yard drive with a 2-yard walk-in touchdown. The 2nd-year starter went 3-6 for 48 yards on the drive, and also drew 2 pass interference penalties. He completed a 3rd-and-18 after being sacked by PSU freshman LB sensation Abdul Carter, who menaced the junior quarterback all day.

At that point, following a failed 2-point try, Penn State led 21-16. It was a suddenly tenuous lead for a team that had seemed to be dominating the game for most of the day.

Needing a win to become bowl eligible, Mel Tucker’s team scraped and clawed. Its defense shut down the Penn State rushing game after halftime, with the Lions netting just 6 rushing yards in the first 19 minutes of the second half after gaining 127 before the break.

Clifford, to his credit, led the key drive that sealed the win that tied him with predecessor Trace McSorley for the Penn State all-time wins record for a starting quarterback. Benefitting from the Covid bonus year, Clifford already owned the program records for career passing yards and TDs going into his final game at Beaver Stadium.

After MSU’s scoring drive that made the score too close for comfort, Clifford went 4-for-4 for 46 yards on a 11-play, 75-yard drive. He capped the drive with a 12-yard screen pass TD to Nick Singleton on 4th-and-2.

Kalen King intercepted Thorne, who had retreated more than 10 yards in the face of the PSU pass rush, on the next possession to ice the victory. Clifford hit KeAndre Lambert-Smith with a 35-yard TD on the next play. It was Clifford’s 4th TD pass of the day and 84th of his career. A 21-16 nail-biter had turned into a 35-16 romp in a matter of minutes.

With the win, the Lions took back the Land Grant Trophy and evened their all-time series with the Spartans at 18-18-1.

It all ended well for Penn State, but it took a while to finally wear down the Spartans.

Penn State didn’t achieve its weekly fast-start goal, bogging down early.

Almost 10 minutes into the game, Clifford was 1-for-4 for 5 yards and Singleton hadn’t been on the field yet. Kaytron Allen had 5 carries for 24 yards as the starting running back, but that didn’t translate to much —  just 1 first down over the Lions’ first 2 drives.

Singleton entered the game to begin the team’s 3rd drive and picked up 6 and 14 yards on his first 2 carries. Two plays later, he went for 29 yards. Later in the drive, Clifford extended a play with a rollout and found KeAndre Lambert-Smith for 7 yards to convert a 4th-and-2. Finally, on the 11th play of the 90-yard drive, Clifford hit a wide-open Theo Johnson for 11 yards and the game’s opening score.

Clifford would go on to finish 19-of-24 for 202 yards and 4 TDs on his Senior Day. With Parker Washington out in the wake of a season-ending injury from a couple weeks ago, Lambert-Smith had  a breakout day, with 5 catches for 83 yards and a TD along with a TD throw.

The Lions played with the same starting offensive line for the 4th straight week, as left tackle Olu Fashanu remained out while true freshman Drew Shelton handled the position in his place. Flanking Shelton to the right were November stalwarts Hunter Nourzad, Juice Scruggs, Sal Wormley and Bryce Effner. They again held their own, with help from the tight ends. Singleton put up 54 yards on his first 5 carries.

Meanwhile, the defense continued its November domination of lesser B1G East foes, posting multiple sacks and a bunch of tackles for loss for the 4th straight Saturday. Their effort provided a final data point for Manny Diaz’s candidacy for the Broyles Award. The Lions’ first-year defensive coordinator is 1 of 15 semifinals for the honor, which goes to the top assistant in the country.

Mixing Carter and veteran safety Ji’Ayir Brown into the blitz package, Diaz kept Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne on the run, sacking him 3 times, batting down several of his passes and forcing throw-aways. At the half, the Spartans had 128 yards. Thorne closed the half strong to stand at 15-of-26 for 120 yards.

Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich got in on the fun, too, calling a perfectly executed trick play for Penn State’s 2nd touchdown of the game. Lambert-Smith took a backward pass from Clifford and lofted the ball over the defense to Johnson, who trotted into the end zone for his 2nd TD of the day. The 48-yard connection capped a 5-play, 80-yard drive. The Penn State offense, which had just 29 yards after 2 drives, racked up 170 on its next 2.

For Penn State fans seeking something to worry about, previously hot kicker Jake Pinegar provided the fodder, missing 2 first-half field goals. He pushed one right from 37 yards and pulled one left from 28.

Because of the misses, Penn State led just 14-3 at the half as Jack Stone hit from 51 yards for MSU on the final play before the break.