Finally, Penn State gets its first win of season with defeat of Michigan

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

This would become Sean Clifford's day.

It certainly would not be smooth or easy or without pain. Nothing much has really has gone such a way in a Penn State football season that started nearly two months late and never got untracked.

But it would be up to the junior quarterback who came into this uncertain COVID-19 Big Ten season advertised as one of the league's best.

Then the season actually started and he gave away one disastrous turnover after another. His Top 10 team kept losing players and games. He was benched, then called upon in relief, only to struggle again.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes in the first half against Michigan at Michigan Stadium.

Still, coach James Franklin stayed with him Saturday despite the first 0-5 record in school history.

And it all paid off in the first victory in 11 months.

Penn State 27, Michigan 17.

Finally, some momentum-turning breaks fell Penn State's way, for what seemed like the first time this season.

And Clifford kept plugging away in leading this re-shaped offense. No matter that it continued to malfunction badly near the goal line time and again.

Then he absorbed a low, hard shot in the second quarter, which looked potentially game-ending, at first.

But he shook that off and quickly came back into the game — and promptly took off on a 28-yard touchdown run.

For the first time all season, Penn State led at halftime.

It got there thanks to an overruled Michigan fumble recovery for a touchdown. It turned out that Parker Washington's knee was down before he let go of the ball early on.

Later, they were given a gift when a Michigan punt returner allowed the ball to pop loose and bounce right into the arms of the Lions' Drew Hartlaub, the South Western grad and expert coverage man.

They kept just ahead of the nearly equally-struggling Michigan Wolverines with the help of some true freshmen — the running of Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes and the pass-catching of Washington. Never before in program history had the Lions started rookies at running back, receiver and tight end (Theo Johnson).

It still was a mistake-prone, ugly performance in many ways for two teams that had nearly flat-lined after high hopes when October began. On one third-quarter play Penn State punted, Michigan muffed it again but recovered — all while Clifford was somehow flagged for holding.

It took the game officials a few minutes to even figure out what happened.

Which has been par for the course for two teams that had not been able to find steady quarterback play — at least until now.

With the game begging for someone, anyone, to take it over, Clifford was the most willing.

He kept finding former walk-on senior receiver Isaac Lutz (first three catches of the season). He broke off another long run.

And, most importantly, he managed his affairs better than he had all season.

There were no ill-advised passes or fumbles that gave away not only the ball but precious momentum. Plus, even when the Lions didn't put themselves in position to score, Clifford usually helped produce a first down or two to give his defense some rest.

The defense played with more full-game energy and spirit but certainly needed the help, too. Their linebacking play continues to be lacking, and so Michigan ran the ball well enough to stay in it and relieve some pressure from its own shaken quarterback, rookie Cade McNamara (injured shoulder).

And yet it kept coming back to Clifford. He engineered another touchdown drive in the middle of the fourth quarter with more key runs and a couple of clutch throws.

He ran for 73 yards, threw for 163 and looked just as frisky moving at the end than he did early, despite that hard hit to the knee.

That's what a breakthrough effort like this will do for you.

Especially, the first win in what seemed like forever.