Penn State ends Clifford’s era by defeating Utah in the Rose Bowl

Clifford beat a highly regarded opponent in his last game as the Nittany Lions' quarterback.

PASADENA, Calif. — In a Rose Bowl of endings, the No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions finished with a victory.

With “The Grandaddy of Them All” being a part of the College Football Playoff next year and the expansion of the playoff to 12 teams the following year, Monday’s game was the Rose Bowl’s final run in its conventional form. History and excitement marked the last traditional run of the contest.

Another conclusion was for Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford. The fifth-year senior and starter for the last four seasons excelled in his final game with the team en route to a 35-21 over the No. 8 Utah Utes.

“[Clifford] has experienced it all with Penn State,” said Penn State head coach James Franklin, “I could not be more proud.”

As the clock winded towards zero, the Rose Bowl Stadium rumbled with noise from the Nittany Lions fans as the win snapped an 11-game losing streak for them against top-10 opponents.

Clifford displayed impressive improvisation with throws across his body and excellent accuracy. In the fourth quarter, he aired a pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith for an 88-yard touchdown to give Penn State a 14-point lead, the longest passing touchdown in the Rose Bowl Game’s history. 

Clifford threw for 279 yards on 16-of-21 completion and two touchdowns. He was named the Rose Bowl Offensive Most Valuable Player.  

Running back Nicholas Singleton led the Nittany Lions’ rushing effort. He often made the right reads on his cuts. Early in the second quarter, he broke free for an 87-yard touchdown. The run was also the third-longest rushing touchdown in the Rose Bowl Game’s history.

Singleton ran for 120 yards on seven carries and scored a touchdown.

The playing field was pretty level regarding injuries and opt-outs. Both teams missed their top pass catcher (Dalton Kincaid for the Utes and Parker Washington for the Nittany Lions) and a cornerback (Clark Phillips for the Utes and Joey Porter for the Nittany Lions). 

Without Kincaid, the Utes turned to Thomas Yassmin to take care of the tight-end duties. Notably, he caught a fade in the back left corner of the endzone to tie the game at seven points. However, that was his only catch of the game.

“Kincaid is, in my opinion, one of the best receiving tight ends in the nation, so tough to replicate what he brings to the offense,” said Utes’ head coach Kyle Whittingham.

The Utes were also without their leading running back, Tavion Thomas, so they employed a duo of running backs, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard. The two were effective, rushing for 81 and 60 yards, respectively. Jackson also scored a touchdown. 

The passing game could have been more efficient, though. 

Quarterback Cameron Rising looked for the deep throw early. The first attempt failed as cornerback Kalen King intercepted him, but he redeemed himself later with a 47-yard completion to wide receiver Devaughn Vele. However, he generally struggled to find consistent completions because of the pressure of the Nittany Lions.

“The entire throw game as a whole was just not what it needed to be,” Whittingham said. “As coaches, we’ve got to coach it better and put them in a better position to get better production there.

While Rising was not successful in throwing the ball, he partially made up for it by rushing. He created gains when the pocket broke down, running for 61 yards. 

Rising ended with 95 passing yards on 8-of-21 completion and one touchdown. However, he left the game in the third quarter after sustaining a foot injury. 

“[The injury] doesn’t look good; I can tell you that,” Whittingham said. “We’ll wait for confirmation from the medical people at a later date, either tonight or tomorrow. Looks like it could be something that takes a while to recover from. That’s not positive right now.”

Backup quarterback Bryson Barnes, who entered for Rising, struggled to gain traction. On his first drive, he heaved up an interception to safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who won Rose Bowl Defensive MVP. 

“[Brown] is the best safety in college,” Franklin said.

Barnes threw for 112 yards on 10-of-19 completion and one touchdown.

The defeat marks the Utes’ second straight season losing in the Rose Bowl Game. Last year, they lost to the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes, 48-45.

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