Penn State vs Purdue score, takeaway: Sean Clifford throws winning TD after grueling 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 went through an entire career of emotion in one night. It looked like 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 started.

The Boilermakers dominated the third quarter, completing two touchdown passes and holding Penn State to 33 yards to take a 24-21 lead. Penn State regained the lead 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 made a 3-and-out. Clifford sent a pass well over target Mitchell Tinsley’s head and into the eager arms of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson. Jefferson drove the ball 72 yards from home to put Purdue back in the lead, and it looked like Penn State’s night was over. The Nittany Lions went just 14 yards on their next two possessions and were forced to punt, but the Boilermakers couldn’t put the final nail in the coffin, which cost them.

Penn State got the ball back once again with 2:22 left, and the Nittany Lions staged an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown in 1:25, with Clifford throwing his fourth touchdown of the night, this time for KeyVone Lee, who scored from 12 yards.

1. Sean Clifford is a gamer

Clifford has been banged up for almost the entire 2021 season, and it feels like he’s been dealing with some sort of injury for his entire career. He started the game with a left knee brace and looked to aggravate the injury by taking a hit in the second quarter. Clifford stayed and finished the half, throwing the 67-yard touchdown to Strange, but he didn’t take the field for Penn State’s opening possession in the second half.

He walked out of the locker room with the team but was seen returning to it when Purdue opened the half with the ball. Five-star rookie Drew Allar replaced a streak before Clifford returned. After the match, James Franklin said that Clifford was suffering from cramps. Asked by Fox’s Jenny Taft, Clifford said he was dealing with “minor injuries and adjustments”. Either way, Clifford didn’t look at full strength for most of the second half, and I thought that would cost Penn State the game.

I even wondered if the Nittany Lions better go back to Allar, because Clifford seemed to lack mobility, and the fact that so many of his throws were high made me wonder if he was planting on that left leg.

In the end, it didn’t matter. As he has done many times before, Clifford gutted him and helped lead his team to a comeback victory. His four touchdown passes tied a career high.

2. People will question Purdue’s late appeal

Purdue took a 31-28 lead over pick six Chris Jefferson 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, just 3:43 from the clock. The Boilermakers called 13 passing plays for a single rush (two were called up on penalties), and incompletes allowed Penn State to keep timeouts.

Obviously, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will be guessed, and I understand why. That said, I also understand Brohm’s thought process. Purdue’s rushing offense averaged 2.79 yards per carry nationally last season. Against Penn State, he improved to 4.1 per carry (not including sacks). Brohm probably thought running the ball would burn more clock but lead to three outs. He chose to be aggressive and rely on what his team does best: throwing the ball. It didn’t work out, so he’ll have to live with the consequences, but I didn’t hate the decision, although 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 return them, but I wouldn’t be too excited. First, Penn State’s offensive line hasn’t played well for what appears to be the 50th straight year. The Nittany Lions split the ball in the run game but only averaged 3.4 yards per run (not including sacks), and no one on the team averaged more than 3.9 meters per run.

On the defensive end of the ball, the game ended with a sack, and Penn State picked up two on the night, but they struggled to generate pressure all night. When they did, it resulted in new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz bringing in a blitz.

Arnold Ebikitie had 9.5 sacks to lead that defense last season, but there were questions about who would step in to fill his shoes this season. A game in, this question has not been answered. The good news is that Penn State still has a great secondary, but the secondaries can only do so much if the front four don’t generate pressure on their own.

4. Charlie Jones has already paid for Purdue

Iowa fans could be heard swearing all night as the Iowa transfer made a fantastic debut for the Boilermakers. He finished with 12 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown. Jones caught just 21 passes for 323 yards all last season with the Hawkeyes.

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