Penn State defeated Purdue 35-31 in a thrilling season opener on Thursday that saw seven head turns and Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford endured an emotional career in one night. It looked like Penn State would take control early on, as Clifford found Brenton Strange for a 67-yard touchdown with two seconds left before halftime to give the Nittany Lions a 21-10 lead. It was a lead that didn’t last long as the second half began.
The Boilermakers dominated the third quarter, putting together two touchdown drives and holding Penn State on the offensive at 33 yards 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 the head of Mitchell Tinsley and into the eager arms of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson. Jefferson took the ball 72 yards to the house to give Purdue back the lead, and it looked like Penn State night was over. The Nittany Lions only got 14 yards on their next two possessions and were forced to kick, but the Boilermakers couldn’t drive the final nail in the box, costing them.
Penn State got the ball one more time with 2:22 left, and the Nittany Lions made 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.
1. Sean Clifford is a gamer
Clifford has been confused for almost all of the 2021 season and it feels like he’s been dealing with some sort of injury his entire career. He started the game with a brace on his left knee and appeared to exacerbate the injury when he scored a goal in the second quarter. Clifford stayed in and finished the half, throwing the 67-yard touchdown to Strange, but he didn’t get on 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 when Purdue led off 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 having cramps. When interviewed by Fox’s Jenny Taft, Clifford said he was dealing with “minor injuries and tweaks.” Be that as it may, Clifford didn’t watch full blast 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 immobile and the fact that so many of his throws were high made me wonder if he wasn’t planting on that left leg.
In the end it didn’t matter. As he has done many times before, Clifford pulled it off and helped his team to a comeback win. His four touchdown passes brought a career high.
2. People are going to question Purdue’s late play-calling
Purdue took a 31-28 lead over Chris Jefferson’s six with 8:29 to go. The Boilermakers had two possessions and chances to burn the clock, but played 11 plays for 26 yards and, most importantly, only 3:43 off the clock. The Boilermakers called off 13 passes to just one rush (two were recalled on penalties), and the incompletions allowed Penn State to hold timeouts.
Obviously Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will come in second, and I can see why. That said, I also understand Brohm’s thought process. Purdue’s hasty strike averaged the worst 2.79 yards per carry of any country last season. Against Penn State, it improved to 4.1 per carry (not counting pockets). Brohm probably believed running the ball would burn more clock, but lead to three-and-outs. He chose to be aggressive and rely on what his team does best: throwing the ball. It didn’t work, so he’ll have to live with the consequences, but I didn’t hate the decision, even though I didn’t quite agree with it.
3. Penn State has won, but serious concerns remain
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 didn’t play well for what feels like the 50th straight year. The Nittany Lions spread the ball around in the running game, but averaged just 3.4 yards per carry (not counting bags), and no one 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 took two in the evening, but they struggled to generate pressure all night. When they did, it was because the new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz brought 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. A game in, that question has not been answered. The good news is that Penn State still has an excellent secondary school, but the secondary can only do so much if the front four don’t generate pressure themselves.
4. Charlie Jones has already paid off for Purdue
Iowa fans could be heard swearing 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 just 21 passes for 323 yards with the Hawkeyes all last season.