Sean Clifford saves best for last as No. 11 Penn State rolls to Rose Bowl win


PASADENA, Calif. – Sean Clifford has been through a lot during his career at Penn State. Through the good and the bad, the face of the show has pretty much heard everything about his work amid a tumultuous couple of seasons in Happy Valley.

In the final game of his college career, however, the veteran quarterback saved the best for last, throwing a pair of touchdowns to help lead the 11th-ranked Nittany Lions to a 35-21 victory over No. 8 of Utah in the 109th Rose Bowl.

Clifford finished 16-of-22 for 279 yards, capping a five-year career with the program with his first bowl victory since his freshman season in 2018. The win doubled as Penn State’s first in the Rose Bowl since beating Oregon in 1995.

The contest also gives PSU and head coach James Franklin some bragging rights, as it will be the last traditional meeting between a Pac-12 champion and a Big Ten team in the game, with the host site a college football. Playoff semifinal next year and their future participation in an expanded 12-team edition of the postseason football tournament.

Unfortunately for the throngs of white-clad Penn State fans who made the trip west, typical Southern California weather didn’t seem to agree with the end of nearly a century of college football tradition, as dreary, cloudy weather prevented the iconic sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains and later gave way to rain in the bowl game for the first time since 1997.

Still, few will argue with a program-defining result and a much-needed boost heading into the offseason for the Nittany Lions.

Here are three other takeaways from the 109th Rose Bowl:

1. Cameron Rising can’t finish

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising didn’t grow up far from Pasadena, but college football’s most famous place seems to have a bit of a crush on the veteran from nearby Ventura.

In last year’s incredible Rose Bowl back-to-back with Ohio State, he was injured on a sack in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes came back to win. Then last October, he had a middling start and threw an interception in a loss to UCLA that seemed to put the team out of the College Football Playoff picture.

Unfortunately, the bad 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 cautiously departed with the help of trainers and later headed to the locker room with a final line of 8-for-21, 95 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Sub Bryson Barnes, who replaced Rising in last year’s game and led a tying goal in the final minutes, did his best to keep the team afloat against Penn State, but threw a pick five plays after coming in and couldn’t last long. against a tough front seven that finished with six sacks.

2. Big strikes allowed PSU to run away

Of all the questions about Franklin’s 2022 team, one of the biggest surrounded an offense that looked good in flashes but seemingly lacked that killer instinct against better teams, after suffering through Michigan and ¬∑slipping down the stretch against Ohio State in 2022. their only two losses. Against the defending Pac-12 champion, however, the Nittany Lions went for the jugular several times, and it ended up paying off with a strong second-half victory.

Running back Nick Singleton turned in the game’s biggest highlight when he ignited the afterburners in the open field on an 87-yard touchdown run on the team’s first possession of the third quarter. Clifford then found KeAndre Lambert-Smith two series later to really break things open with an 88-yard strike that became the longest touchdown pass in Rose Bowl history.

Overall, PSU had 10 plays of 15-plus yards in the game, including the pair of scores of 80-plus yards after scoring just one play of 70-plus yards in all 12 regular-season games of this year This against a Utes defense that had also allowed one big play of 70+ yards all year.

3. Both teams will have the return view

Next year’s College Football Playoff will be the last to feature just four teams and will feature a semifinal played at the iconic Pasadena venue. Judging by the state of both rosters, Penn State and Utah could be in line for a return trip out west, given the amount of production that will return in 2023.

Singleton had his seventh rush of 40-plus 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 in his first season in State College. Fellow frosh Kaytron Allen ran for 37 yards and a touchdown in the game and came close to joining Singleton in the 1,000-yard club. Quarterback Drew Allar has been Clifford’s heir apparent for a while (and an upgrade behind center according to many) and offensive tackle Olu Fashanu, a projected first-round pick, already confirmed he would return next season.

Likewise, Utah is a very young team and the back-to-back Pac-12 champions return most of their roster with only a handful of seniors about to leave. Ja’Quinden Jackson was the team’s leading rusher with 81 yards, and his first-half touchdown run showed what he was capable of spinning out of a tackle in the backfield before making three other defenders lost on their way to the end zone. While Rising has not announced his plans for the future, the quarterback could still return for another campaign in Salt Lake City if he chooses.

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