Clifford throws 4 TDs, No. 11 Penn State tops Michigan St

Sean Clifford threw four touchdown passes and No. 11 Penn State’s defense tightened up late to beat Michigan State 35-16 in the regular-season finale

ByTRAVIS JOHNSON Associated Press
November 26, 2022, 9:29 PM
Penn State tight end Theo Johnson (84) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State tight end Theo Johnson (84) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
The Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This is what Sean Clifford came back for. The atmosphere, the camaraderie and most importantly, the wins.

Penn State’s four-year starter, who opted to return for his sixth and final collegiate season, threw four touchdown passes to lead the No. 11 Nittany Lions over Michigan State 35-16 in the regular-season finale on Saturday.

Afterward, the program’s longest-tenured quarterback made a victory lap with his teammates, high-fiving and hugging fans who watched him lift the Nittany Lions out of danger with two masterful, late scoring drives to swat down the comeback-minded Spartans.

“For me, it’s the culmination of everything this year has been,” Clifford said. “It’s been little moments here and there that nobody even sees that I won’t even tell anybody because It’s special to me, it’s special to the guys that I’ve shared it with and it’s part of the journey.”

Tight end Theo Johnson caught two touchdown passes, Tyler Warren and running back Nick Singleton each caught one, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith threw a touchdown pass and caught another for the Nittany Lions (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten, No. 11 CFP), who won 10 games for the fourth time under coach James Franklin.

Penn State evened the all-time series with the Spartans at 18-18-1, but needed a fourth-quarter push to do so.

The Spartans (5-7, 3-6) were down a handful of players due to injuries and suspensions; seven of those suspended in the melee after the Michigan game on Oct. 29 were charged Wednesday.

Penn State held Michigan State to just eight rushing yards and was up 14-3 at halftime. But the Spartans cut Penn State’s lead to 21-16 with 10:52 to play after quarterback Payton Thorne led back-to-back 10- and 11-play touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters.

Thorne threw to Maliq Carr who made a one-handed catch for a nine-yard score late in the third. The Spartans quarterback kept the ball himself for a two-yard touchdown on their next possession, though his two-point conversion pass failed.

But Penn State’s offense took control from there.

Clifford led an 11-play drive of his own to ice the game on senior day. He found Singleton in the flats and the rookie running back skipped through the Spartan defense for a 12-yard score. He also threw a 35-yard dart to Lambert-Smith between defenders with 3:56 to play as a finale.

“That was a huge drive in the game,” Franklin said. “They had gotten momentum, were able to get it down to a one-score game, so being able to answer there was a big-time drive.”

The first quarter featured early miscues from both teams. The Spartans turned the ball over on their opening drive when linebacker Tyler Elsdon recovered a backward pass. Four plays later, Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar pushed a 37-yard field goal try wide right.

The teams traded punts until Singleton took over on Penn State’s third possession. The freshman carried five times for 54 yards to steer the offense into the red zone where Clifford threw over the middle to a wide open Johnson. The 11-yard touchdown pass capped an 11-play, 90-yard drive with 40 seconds left in the quarter.

The Nittany Lions got creative on their next possession.

They pulled up to midfield, where Clifford threw backward to Lambert-Smith along the sideline. The wideout then threw deep to an uncovered Johnson for a 48-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 with 11:22 left in the half.

The Spartans finally responded when Jack Stone kicked a 51-yard field goal to finish an 11-play drive over the last 1:27 before halftime.

“The kids played hard,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “We started off slow on offense and we weren’t able to finish on defense.”

TIGHT ENDS ENGAGE

Johnson laughed after the game as he thought about how he and Lambert-Smith practiced the wideout pass earlier in the week.

“That was the most open I’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “Probably the easiest touchdown I’ll ever have.”

Penn State's tight ends accounted for 13 touchdowns this season.

THE TAKEAWAY

Michigan State: This game was going to be tough for the Spartans no matter what, being down three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, two corners, a tight end, a safety and a long snapper.

Eight other players had been suspended indefinitely after the fight in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Of the seven charged, defensive back Khary Crump facing a felony assault charge and the other six, including standout linebacker Jacoby Windmon, face misdemeanor assault charges. It’s an unceremonious end for a squad that won 11 games a season ago.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions have played with their ears pinned back since they let a fourth-quarter lead slip away against Ohio State on Oct. 29. In their final four games, opponents scored just five offensive touchdowns. The offense also is hitting on all cylinders with Allen and Singleton co-starring. They should be a formidable opponent for whoever they draw in their bowl game, which could come in a sunny location on New Years Day.

SUSPENSION UPDATE

Tucker said after the game that defensive back Malcolm Jones, the only player who had been suspended but not charged in the tunnel incident, has been reinstated. Tucker had no other updates and said there is no timeline to decide the fates of the other players who’ve been charged.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: Season complete.

Penn State: Awaiting its final AP Top 25 ranking and its bowl assignment.

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