By John Butters
Sean Clifford threw four touchdown passes to lead No. 11 Penn State over Michigan State 35-16 in the regular-season finale.
Afterward, the sixth-year quarterback made a victory lap with his teammates.
“For me, it’s the culmination of everything this year has been,” Clifford said.
“It’s been little moments here and there that nobody even sees that I won’t even tell anybody because It’s special to me, it’s special to the guys that I’ve shared it with and it’s part of the journey.”
Tight end Theo Johnson caught two touchdown passes, Tyler Warren and running back Nick Singleton each caught one, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith threw a touchdown pass and caught another for the Nittany Lions (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten, No. 11 CFP), who won 10 games for the fourth time under coach James Franklin.
Penn State evened the all-time series with the Spartans at 18-18-1, but needed a fourth-quarter push to do so.
The Spartans (5-7, 3-6) were down a handful of players due to injuries and suspensions; seven of those suspended in the melee after the Michigan game on Oct. 29 were charged Wednesday.
Penn State held Michigan State to just eight rushing yards and was up 14-3 at halftime. But the Spartans cut Penn State’s lead to 21-16 with 10:52 to play after quarterback Payton Thorne led back-to-back 10- and 11-play touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters.
Thorne threw to Maliq Carr who made a one-handed catch for a nine-yard score late in the third. The Spartans quarterback kept the ball himself for a two-yard touchdown on their next possession, though his two-point conversion pass failed.
But Penn State’s offense took control from there.
Clifford led an 11-play drive of his own to ice the game on senior day. He found Singleton in the flats and the rookie running back skipped through the Spartan defense for a 12-yard score. He also threw a 35-yard dart to Lambert-Smith between defenders with 3:56 to play as a finale.
“That was a huge drive in the game,” Franklin said. “They had gotten momentum, were able to get it down to a one-score game, so being able to answer there was a big-time drive.”
The first quarter featured early miscues from both teams. The Spartans turned the ball over on their opening drive when linebacker Tyler Elsdon recovered a backward pass. Four plays later, Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar pushed a 37-yard field goal try wide right.
The teams traded punts until Singleton took over on Penn State’s third possession. The freshman carried five times for 54 yards to steer the offense into the red zone where Clifford threw over the middle to a wide open Johnson. The 11-yard touchdown pass capped an 11-play, 90-yard drive with 40 seconds left in the quarter.
The Nittany Lions got creative on their next possession.
They pulled up to midfield, where Clifford threw backward to Lambert-Smith along the sideline. The wideout then threw deep to an uncovered Johnson for a 48-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 with 11:22 left in the half.
The Spartans finally responded when Jack Stone kicked a 51-yard field goal to finish an 11-play drive over the last 1:27 before halftime.
“The kids played hard,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “We started off slow on offense and we weren’t able to finish on defense.”