Starting Big Ten play on the road against a tough opponent is never easy. No team knows that better than Penn State, who has done it 12 out of the last 13 seasons. They have also started the season on the road the last two times (yes, 2020 started the season on the road too, but there were no out of conference games that year), against such Big Ten foes. In 2014, the Lions barely squeaked out with a win in Rutgers’s inaugural season in the Big Ten. 2016 had the worst loss of the James Franklin era in the Big Ten, a 39-point drubbing at the hands of Michigan. 2017 saw Penn State take on Iowa at night, coming away with a win in the last play of the game. 2018, while the score would say otherwise, was still a game in the fourth quarter, as Illinois would take a lead in the second half, and a 35-point 4th quarter performance by the Lions finally put the game away. 2019 may be the most satisfying of all these conference openers on the road, as Penn State absolutely smothered a Maryland team with aspirations, only to have the Nittany Lion students take over the Maryland student section midway through the third.
Then, of course, there are the last three games. Those are the most fresh in our minds, and those are the ones that build the narrative we have today. All in all, James Franklin has opened up Big Ten play on the road eight times, winning six of them. And only twice have the Nittany Lions played a team that was ultimately below them in the standings. So, all in all, the program is used to being in this position.
So, when looking at tonight, remember all the other times the Nittany Lions have been here. Penn State has been on the good end of these Big Ten openers more often than they’ve been on the other side, and that’s a testament to the resilience of this team. In fact, the quarterback we all love to love and hate, Sean Clifford, has been behind three of these four performances, a testament to his ability to put the game on his shoulders when it matters.
On Thursday night, we saw both the love and the hate on display from Clifford. His stat line of 20 of 37 for 282 yards, four touchdowns and an interception will probably seem pedestrian, maybe even Clifford-like to most, but what’s hidden in the numbers was his ability to make plays happen when his team needed them the most.
The Nittany Lions found themselves down early, and Clifford drove them down the field for a quick score. They found themselves down again, and Clifford gave them the lead back before the half. Not being content with merely going into the half with a lead, Clifford found Brenton Strange for a touchdown late in the second quarter to extend the lead.
Then, in the second half, when Purdue made adjustments to stop Penn State, Clifford once again found a way to give the Lions the lead it had lost.
Everyone will focus on the pick six, and rightfully so, but let’s not forget the other side of that coin: when Penn State needed a score, when their backs were against the wall, Clifford and the offense did what they needed to do to get the win.
And boy was that last drive a beauty!
Stats and Storylines
4 - Dropped passes that would have likely given this game a different feel if they were caught. I hope this isn't a sign of things to come, as 2018 was riddled with such dropped passes, all of which collectively made a promising season turn into a what if rather quickly.
98 - Rushing yards in the game. All three of Keyvone Lee, Nick Singleton, and Kaytron Allen saw healthy playing time, with Devyn Ford getting a few series himself. The three main backs combined for 83 yards in the most even fashion (30, 22, and 31 respectively for Lee, Singleton, and Allen), while Parker Washington and Clifford pitched the other 15 yards in. It may not be the elusive 100 yards we’re looking for, but we’re getting closer to a consistent running game.
1 - Sacks allowed by the offensive line. Sure, the one time Clifford got hit he nearly got knocked out of the game, but the line’s ability to keep Clifford upright all night long was to be commended.
The Puke Six - Purdue’s Chris Jefferson had the lone interception of the game —a 72 yard return for a score, which led to the meme of the week, as the camera panned to a bent over Jefferson puking on the sideline following his return. Scott Frost would be proud!
Growing Pains - Abdul Carter was ejected in the first play of his Penn State career. That’s going to be a learning opportunity for someone who will likely see a ton of playing time as the season unfolds.