STATE COLLEGE – James Franklin had seen enough Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
The Penn State football coach watched Michigan State drive for two touchdowns in the second half to pull within five points. He saw Jake Pinegar miss two field goals in the first half.
Franklin decided the Nittany Lions were going to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 12-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know if the coaching manual necessarily says that it was the right thing to do,” he said, “but with the way the game was playing out I thought that was the right thing to do, to be aggressive there.”
Penn State lined up in a T formation and then shifted into an empty backfield behind Sean Clifford. He threw to the left to running back Nick Singleton, who followed a bone-crunching block by tight end Theo Johnson to score the decisive touchdown in a 35-16 victory.
“That package has been really good to us,” Franklin said. “We have a variety of things we can do out of it. It was our four against their three (on that side of the field). That one worked, so it was a good decision.”
No. 11 Penn State (7-2 Big Ten, 10-2) withstood a determined effort by the Spartans (3-6, 5-7) to complete its first 10-win season in three years and its fourth in seven years.
With their fourth consecutive win, the Lions also strengthened their case for a New Year’s Six bowl berth and regained possession of the Land Grant Trophy.
“I held that thing,” senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “It was heavy. I carried it from the end zone to the 50. I said to someone, ‘Come grab this and help me out with this.’ It was definitely a special moment. I know how much it means in this program to have that trophy in our facility.”
Clifford followed his touchdown toss to Singleton, which came with 4:31 to go, with one more. Penn State cornerback Kalen King intercepted Payton Thorne’s pass on the next series at the Spartans’ 35. On the first snap, Clifford lobbed a strike to KeAndre Lambert-Smith for the Lions’ second touchdown in 35 seconds.
Clifford, the Lions’ often-maligned quarterback, completed 19-of-23 passes for 202 yards and four touchdowns in his final home game.
“I started tearing up a little bit throughout the day,” Clifford said. “Once we got in the locker room, we started talking about locking in. ‘Let’s make sure we take care of business.’
“It didn’t hit me until after the last touchdown. Then I really started to feel it,”
Michigan State, a 19-point underdog, played like it had nothing to lose, often blitzing on defense and sacking Clifford three times. On offense, the Spartans rode the arm of Thorne, who completed 24-of-43 passes for 229 yards and one touchdown, a one-handed grab by tight end Maliq Carr late in the third quarter.
On Michigan State’s next drive, Thorne threw two passes that Keon Coleman and Tre Mosley managed to pull down. Those catches set up Thorne’s 2-yard touchdown keeper with 10:52 to go. Keaton Ellis broke up Thorne’s conversion pass to keep it at 21-16.
“It was nothing new to us,” defensive end Nick Tarburton said. “We had a tough game at Purdue to start this (season) off. There was no panic.”
Penn State’s offense, which had been mostly stifled in the second half, responded with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that took almost 6.5 minutes. Clifford went 4-for-4 for 46 yards, including the toss to Singleton.
“That was a huge drive,” Franklin said. “They had gotten momentum. Being able to answer there was a big-time drive. Not only did we go the length of the field but we also took a ton of time off the clock, which was really valuable.”
Penn State pushed its lead to 21-3 in the third quarter by converting Tyler Warren’s recovery of punt returner Jaylin Reed’s fumble into a touchdown. Clifford connected with Warren on a 14-yard score.
Lambert-Smith caught five passes for 83 yards and one touchdown and threw a scoring pass to Johnson on an option pass in the second quarter.
“I saw Theo wide open,” Lambert-Smith said, “so I just knew I had to get it to him.”
Kaytron Allen ran 21 times for 78 yards and Singleton, the former Gov. Mifflin star, had 78 yards on 17 carries.
Penn State built a 14-3 halftime lead that could have been larger if not for Pinegar’s two missed field goals from 38 and 27 yards.
In the first quarter, Clifford threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Johnson in the face of an all-out blitz on third down.
“I had a feeling the guys in front of me were not on the same page,” Johnson said. “They completely blew the coverage. I didn’t really run my full route just because I knew I was so open. I wasn’t really expecting to be that open. Sometimes it just works out like that.
After Pinegar missed a field goal for the second time, Michigan State drove from its 20 in the final 90 seconds of the half to the Penn State 34. From there, freshman Jack Stone drilled a 51-yard field goal as time expired to make it 14-3 at the half.
The Lions dominated the half, outgaining the Spartans 245-128 and holding them to 8 rushing yards. But they were unable to put them away until the end.
Penn State began the season unranked and likely will move into the top 10 in the polls and the College Football Playoff rankings.
“Honestly, it doesn’t even feel real,” Tarburton said. “It’s going to hit me here soon. That’s where Penn State should be every single year, double-digit wins and playing in big games and doing our thing. I’m just so happy and honored to be here.”
Source: Berkshire mont