Rapid Reaction: Sean Clifford closes his Penn State career with epic Rose Bowl effort
Sean Clifford delivered one heck of a swan song, helping Penn State score a major victory for itself and the Big Ten in the penultimate bowl game of the 2022 college football season.
Penn State’s 6th-year senior quarterback carried the Nittany Lions until the rest of the team could get going in a 35-21 Rose Bowl victory over No. 8 Utah.
With the win, Clifford finished his 4-year stint as the team’s starting QB with a school record 32 wins against 14 losses.
Veteran players such as Clifford, PJ Mustipher and Ji’Ayir Brown finished their careers on a high note, with the team finishing 11-2 and sure to gain a top-10 ranking in the final polls.
Though most fans of other B1G teams won’t care, the win also allowed the conference to finish bowl season at 5-4 and break a stretch of 4 straight losses. After Michigan and Ohio State both suffered heartbreaking CFP semifinal losses on Saturday, Illinois and Purdue dropped bowl games to SEC foes earlier on Monday before ceding the national spotlight to the Nittany Lions.
Clifford carried the bulk of the load in the first half and hit a beautiful deep ball to KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a backbreaking 88-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
In between, in the third quarter, the defense toughened up and Nick Singleton busted free for an 87-yard touchdown run to break a 14-14 tie. When dual-threat Utah quarterback Cam Rising left the game with an injury, Utah lost the mojo it had while playing even or better against the Lions for 30+ minutes.
While the Lions looked shaky for an extended period, Clifford delivered efficient and effective QB play from the start. He scrambled to extend plays and convert key third downs. He zipped balls into tight windows. He threw the ball away when prudent and secured the ball when sacks (3) couldn’t be avoided.
Penn State throttled Utah once Rising exited following a big hit he took while running for a first down. With his top target having opted out, Rising did all he could as a passer and runner. He had 95 passing yards and 56 on the ground before turning the reins over to backup Bryson Barnes.
Once Penn State had built a 35-14 lead, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz unleashed his attacking defense on Barnes in a way he couldn’t risk against Rising. The Utes had 246 offensive yards when Rising went down, and less than 150 the rest of the way. Utah didn’t score in the second half until a meaningless TD with 25 seconds remaining.
Clifford’s bomb to Lambert-Smith moved him to No. 6 all-time among B1G quarterbacks in career passing yards with well over 10,600 yards.
While the 24-year-old was enjoying his last hurrah, the true freshman Singleton was among several young Lions proving why next season brims with promise for James Franklin’s program. The 5-star recruit went over 1,000 yards for the season, with plenty to spare, finishing with 120 yards on only 7 carries. He TD romp was the 3rd-longest scoring run in Rose Bowl history.
Penn State will be riding a 5-game winning streak into the 2023 season and will spend the next 9 months as the only B1G team with a victory this calendar year.
Utah (10-4), the Pac-12 champion, played tough for 18th-year coach Kyle Whittingham until Rising left the game and the rest of the squad wore down.
Penn State improved to 2-3 in the Rose Bowl.
A tight game early
Left tackle Olu Fashanu, listed as a game-time decision, did not play. He’s been out since getting injured against Ohio State in late October, but recently announced he will return for the 2023 season despite being a likely first-round pick in the NFL Draft. With Fashanu out, Penn State started its November line group of freshman Drew Shelton, Hunter Nourzad (returning), Juice Scruggs (final game), Sal Wormley (no decision announced) and Bryce Effner (no decision announced).
Two drives into the game, Singleton had 28 yards on 4 carries but the rest of the team had -3 total yards. Clifford had thrown only 1 pass, completing it for 4 yards.
Utah got moving on its second possession, but it ended on an interception by Kalen King, who covered the play so well that he essentially took over the route from the Utah receiver. King has flourished since Joey Porter Jr. left the lineup, first because of appendicitis and then to prepare for the NFL Draft. He is one of the many young, emerging stars that have Penn State looking extremely formidable heading into the 2023 season.
Things changed for the Penn State offense after the pick, as Clifford — making his 46th and final college start — found tight ends Tyler Warren and Theo Johnson for big gains on an 11-play, 82-yard touchdown drive. After the drive, Clifford stood at 6-for-7 for 61 yards. Singleton, who capped the drive with a 5-yard blast up the middle, had 33 yards on 5 carries.
Utah, led by 2nd-year starting quarterback Rising, responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive. The Utes pounded the Lions on the ground, and Rising found backup tight end Thomas Yassmin for a 1-yard TD pass to cap the march. Utah held the ball for more than 7 minutes on the drive, and was at 81 rushing yards for the game by the time it was done. Yassmin, a former rugby player, took a prominent role in the game in the absence of team-leading receiver Dalton Kincaid, who opted out.
Clifford held serve on the next possession, scrambling away from pressure to convert a 3rd-and-8, zipping the ball to Harrison Wallace on a tight slant and then hitting Mitchell Tinsley for a 10-yard touchdown. Even his incompletion to start the drive counted as a solid play, as he avoided pressure and threw the ball away. He finished the drive with 4 straight completions for 68 yards.
With the score, Penn State led 14-7 with 5 minutes left in a fast-moving first half.
Utah answered with a 6-play, 75-yard drive in just over 2 minutes. Rising hit Devaughn Vele with an underthrown ball that went for 47 yards as the Utes avoided a 3-and-out. Three plays later Ja’Quinden Jackson burst through several tackle attempts for a 19-yard touchdown. A game that started with 4 combined drives producing no points, 4 first downs and 64 yards suddenly had become a high-scoring affair. Four straight drives resulted in touchdowns, and the total yards stood nearly even.
After the teams traded fruitless drives to close the half, it was clear that the 109th Rose Bowl was going to play out as a battle of veteran quarterbacks. At the break, Clifford was 12-of-15 for 146 yards and a TD — including 5-for-5 on third-down throws. The dual-threat Rising was 7-of-15 for 81 yards with 1 TD and the 1 pick. On the ground, he had 7 carries for 31 yards as part of the Utes’ 21-119-1 rushing attack.
From a Penn State perspective, Clifford was getting the job done but the run defense was not. As for the PSU ground game, Singleton had 5 carries for 33 yards, leaving him 26 short of 1,000 in his true freshman season. Fellow true freshman Kaytron Allen carried 6 times for 26 yards. But Clifford was sacked 3 times and had netted minus-14 yards on the ground.
Team-wise, Utah had 200 total yards and 12 first downs, Penn State 191 and 8. Manny Diaz’s usually aggressive defense had just 1 sack, and King’s interception stood as the game’s only turnover.