Sean Clifford saves best for last as No. 11 Penn State rolls to Rose Bowl win
PASADENA, Calif. — Sean Clifford has been through plenty during the course of his career at Penn State. Through good times and bad, the face of the program has just about heard it all regarding his play amid a turbulent couple of seasons in Happy Valley.
In the final game of his college career, however, the veteran quarterback saved his best for last, tossing a pair of touchdowns to help lead the 11th-ranked Nittany Lions to a 35-21 win over No. 8 Utah in the 109th edition of the Rose Bowl.
Clifford finished the Granddaddy of them all 16-of-22 for 279 yards, capping a five-year run with the program by delivering its first bowl victory since his freshman season in 2018. The win doubled as Penn State’s first at the Rose Bowl since topping Oregon back in 1995.
The contest also gives PSU and head coach James Franklin a bit of bragging rights, too, as it is set to be the last traditional meeting between a Pac-12 champion and a Big Ten team in the game, with the venue hosting a College Football Playoff semifinal next year and it’s future involvement in an expanded 12-team edition of the postseason football tournament.
Sadly for the throngs of white-clad Penn State fans who made the trip out West, the typical Southern California weather didn’t appear to agree with the ending of nearly a century of college football tradition as dreary overcast weather prevented the iconic sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains and later gave way to rain at the bowl game for first time since 1997.
Still, few will argue with a program-defining result and much-needed momentum heading into the offseason for the Nittany Lions.
Here are three other takeaways from the 109th Rose Bowl:
1. Cameron Rising fails to finish
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising didn’t grow up too far from Pasadena, but the most famous venue in college football sure seems to have a bit of a hex on the veteran from nearby Ventura.
In last year’s incredible back-and-forth Rose Bowl with Ohio State, he was injured on a sack in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes came back to win. Then, this past October, he got off to a middling start and threw an interception in a loss to UCLA that seemed to take the team out of the College Football Playoff picture.
Unfortunately, the lack of luck continued Monday night as he suffered a lower left leg injury while scrambling for a first down on 3rd and seven with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Rising walked off gingerly with the help of trainers and later made his way to the locker room with a final line of 8-of-21, 95 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Backup Bryson Barnes, who replaced Rising in last year’s game and led a game-tying scoring drive in the final minutes, did his best to keep the team afloat against Penn State but threw a pick five plays after coming on and couldn’t sustain much against a tough front seven that ended up with six sacks.
2. Big strikes allowed PSU to run away
Of all the questions about Franklin’s team in 2022, one of the biggest surrounded an offense that looked good in flashes but seemingly didn’t have that killer instinct against better teams, after getting blown out by Michigan and collapsing down the stretch against Ohio State in their only two losses. Against the reigning Pac-12 champion, however, the Nittany Lions went for the jugular several times, and it wound up paying off in a convincing second-half victory.
Running back Nick Singleton turned in the game’s best highlight when he turned on the afterburners in the open field on an 87-yard touchdown run during the team’s first possession of the third quarter. Then Clifford found KeAndre Lambert-Smith two series later to really break things open with an 88-yard strike that wound up becoming the longest touchdown pass in Rose Bowl history.
All told, PSU had 10 plays of over 15 yards in the game, including the pair of 80-plus-yard scores after notching just one play of more than 70 yards across all 12 of their regular season games this year. This against a Utes defense that similarly had allowed just one big play of over 70 yards all year long, too.
3. Both teams will eye return trip
Next year’s College Football Playoff will be the final one to feature just four teams and will include a semifinal played at the iconic venue in Pasadena. Judging by the state of both rosters, Penn State and Utah could well be in line for a return trip out West given the amount of production coming back in 2023, too.
Singleton turned in his seventh run of over 40 yards this season when he scored on that 87-yard scamper in the third quarter — which also ended up putting him over 1,000 yards during his first season in State College. Fellow frosh Kaytron Allen notched 37 yards plus a touchdown in the game and nearly came close to joining Singleton in the 1,000-yard rushing club. Quarterback Drew Allar has been the heir apparent to Clifford for a while (and an upgrade behind center according to many) and offensive tackle Olu Fashanu, a projected first-round pick, already confirmed that he was coming back next season.
Similarly, Utah is a very young team and the back-to-back Pac-12 champions return the bulk of their roster with just a handful of seniors set to depart. Ja’Quinden Jackson was the team’s leading rusher with 81 yards and his touchdown run in the first half showed just what he was capable of in spinning out of a tackle in the backfield before making three other defenders miss on his way to the end zone. Though Rising has not announced his plans for the future, the quarterback could still return for another campaign in Salt Lake City if he opts to.
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