Penn State comes from behind, knocks off Purdue 35-31 with epic late-game TD drive

On the heels of a horrific mistake, the much-maligned Sean Clifford led Penn State on a game-winning drive to give the Nittany Lions a thrilling 35-31 road victory over Purdue on Thursday night.

Earlier in the fourth, Penn State appeared to be in complete control. The Nittany Lions had a 28-24 lead and the ball near midfield when Clifford, PSU’s sixth-year senior quarterback, threw his worst pass of the night.

Clifford had Mitchell Tinsley open over the middle, but Clifford air-mailed it into the arms of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson, who returned the errant pass 72 yards for a touchdown to put the Boilermakers ahead 31-28 with 8:29 to go.

The shell-shocked Clifford struggled mightily on his next two possessions, but the PSU defense got a stop to give the offense one final shot with 2:22 to go.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Clifford stepped up in a big way.

Clifford led an 8-play, 80-yard drive that took just 57 seconds off the clock. In the process, Clifford completed 6-of-7 passes for 72 yards, including the game-winning 10-yard touchdown to running back Keyvone Lee with 57 seconds remaining.

Purdue’s offense would get one final try, but couldn’t get past midfield as the Penn State defense sealed a thrilling season-opening victory.

It was a stunning turn of events for Clifford and the Nittany Lions, who were inconsistent on offense throughout the night. But PSU was able to make the plays when it mattered and escape West Lafayette with a gutsy win.

Game featured 7 lead changes

Before Penn State's epic game-winning drive, the lead changed hands six other times.

Purdue had a 10-7 lead late in the first half before Penn State scored twice in the final two minutes of the second quarter. First, Clifford gave the Nittany Lions a 14-10 lead via a two-yard sneak.

On the ensuing possession, Purdue drove the ball deep into PSU territory before fumbling in the red zone with 30 seconds to go in the half.

Three plays later, Clifford made a big play. He escaped the pocket to the right and found tight end Brenton Strange. Strange bounced off multiple Purdue tacklers and took off for a 67-yard touchdown, giving PSU a 21-10 lead just two seconds before the half.

The third quarter, though, was all Purdue.

Aidan O’Connell and the Purdue offense was able to pick apart the Penn State defense with Iowa transfer Charlie Jones doing most of the damage at receiver. Jones caught 12 passes for 153 yards in his Purdue debut, including a go-ahead 7-yard touchdown catch with 1:11 to go in the third quarter.

That Jones score capped off a 10-play, 81-yard drive for the Boilermakers, their second touchdown drive of 75-plus yards in the third quarter to flip that 21-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead.

Clifford nearly lost game with terrible INT

After a lifeless third quarter, the PSU defense forced two Purdue three-and-outs while the offense scored a touchdown in between to start the fourth. Clifford hit KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a 29-yard catch-and-run touchdown to put PSU ahead 28-24 with 10:44 to play.

On its next possession, Penn State looked like it was ready to take complete control of the game — until Clifford made that huge mistake, sailing that errant pass over an open Tinsley's head and into the arms of Jefferson.

It looked like that pick-six would doom the Nittany Lions, but the Purdue offense was unable to run the clock out. The pass-happy Boilermakers continued to throw the ball, keeping precious time on the clock.

Eventually, the PSU defense got off the field and set the table for Clifford and the PSU offense to win the game in improbable fashion.

What does this mean for Penn State?

With the way the last two seasons have gone, this was a big win for James Franklin's program.

PSU went 11-11 combined in 2020 and 2021, including closing out the 2021 campaign by losing six of eight to finish 7-6. The Nittany Lions seemed to come up short in so many close games, but they found a way to win this one in a raucous environment. Clifford especially has taken criticism throughout his career, but he showed tremendous poise on that game-winning drive.

When Clifford was healthy last fall, Penn State looked like a really good team. But once Clifford got injured vs. Iowa, the wheels came off with so little depth behind him. This year, PSU has acclaimed freshman Drew Allar in the fold and he made his debut when Clifford started the third quarter in the locker room with an unspecified injury.

Clifford can be frustrating for the PSU fanbase, and a play like that brutal interception is a clear example of why many fans have clamored for Allar or one of the other young QBs on the roster. At the same time, a clutch two-minute drill drive shows why Franklin and the staff were happy to have Clifford back for another year.

That's a drive to build off going forward with another tough road game — a trip to Auburn — on the horizon before conference play resumes.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) capped his team's game-winning drive with a 10-yard TD pass in the closing minute against Purdue. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) capped his team's game-winning drive with a 10-yard TD pass in the closing minute against Purdue. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)