PASADENA, Calif. – After Sean Clifford walked off the rainy field and into a warm standing ovation from Penn State's fans in the waning minutes of a Rose Bowl victory, he couldn't help thinking back 13 years to a camp that the 11-year-old quarterback attended in this venerable stadium.
“I just remember falling in love with football,” Clifford said of his first trip to Pasadena. “For it to come full circle, and then to be able to be a spoke in the wheel for this team in the Rose Bowl, is just such a blessing.”
Clifford and his teammates undoubtedly did their part to pass their love to a new generation of Nittany Lions with a monumental series of big plays in a 35-21 victory over No. 7 Utah on Monday in the 109th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All.
Early in the third quarter, freshman Nicholas Singleton made a tiebreaking 87-yard touchdown run. On the first snap of the fourth KeAndre Lambert-Smith made the longest touchdown reception in Rose Bowl history on an 88-yard pass from Clifford.
Those two scores — and Utah quarterback Cameron Rising's game-ending injury in the third quarter — decided it in favor of the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions (11-2), whose reward for a resilient season was the second Rose Bowl victory in school history.
They stood on stage together afterward amid floating confetti and falling rain, oblivious to both artificial and natural elements after Penn State's first Rose Bowl triumph since Jan. 2, 1995.
“Our guys just stuck together, made some big plays when we needed to, and we found a way to get a win against a really good Utah team,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Clifford passed for 279 yards and two touchdowns in an impressive farewell to Penn State, and Singleton rushed for 120 yards and two more scores.
The big plays stuck out: Penn State's offense racked up 448 yards with just 15 first downs, and the defense made two interceptions in Nittany Lions territory.
Singleton broke open a well-played game when he slashed through Utah’s defensive front and outran the secondary for his second touchdown early in the third quarter, surpassing 1,000 yards in his impressive freshman season along the way.
The 87-yard romp was the third-longest TD run in Rose Bowl history and the second-longest in Penn State’s bowl history, with only Saquon Barkley’s 92-yard run in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl going longer.
Shortly after rain began to fall on the Rose Bowl Game for the first time since 1997, Lambert-Smith got open deep and eluded Utah’s defensive backs on the first snap of the fourth quarter for the longest pass completion in Penn State’s bowl history. Clifford’s pass also broke the Rose Bowl record of 76 yards by Michigan’s Rick Leach to Curt Stephenson in 1978 against Washington.
“Our defense got big-played,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Freshman Kaytron Allen added a 1-yard TD run with 10:36 to play, and Penn State’s defense got stops on the Utes’ first six drives of the second half.
Rising passed for 95 yards before apparently injuring his left knee in the third quarter, forcing the Utah quarterback out of his second straight Rose Bowl early due to injury. Rising, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Utah history, got hurt while scrambling near midfield, eventually returning in street clothes.
“Seeing our captain go down is definitely something that you don’t take lightly,” Utah left tackle Braeden Daniels said. “It's tough, but there's adversity you've got to deal with. It can't be a drop-off ... but Penn State is a good team, and they outplayed us today.”
Bryson Barnes replaced Rising for the second straight Rose Bowl after leading an improbable tying drive late in Utah's 48-45 loss to Ohio State a year ago. The two-time Pac-12 champion Utes (10-4) couldn’t rally this time behind their backup, who passed for 112 yards with an interception.
“We just have to keep coming back to this game until we get it right,” Whittingham said. “Took us three times in the Pac-12 championship (game) before we got the win, so we’ve got to make sure that we try to continue to get better.”
Ja’Quinden Jackson rushed for 81 yards and a touchdown for Utah. Thomas Yassmin caught an early TD pass from Rising, but Utah was shut out for 32 straight minutes before Jaylen Dixon’s TD catch with 25 seconds to play.
The victory was a fitting finale for Clifford, the sixth-year senior who finally added a memorable bowl performance to his slew of Penn State career passing records in his 51st game. Clifford also became the winningest quarterback in school history with his 32nd victory, passing Trace McSorley.
Franklin called a timeout with 2:30 left to allow a hero's farewell for Clifford, who waved at Penn State's roaring, white-clad fans while his teammates applauded.
“I’m just so thankful for this place,” Clifford said. “I can’t put it into words. It’s so amazing. I just love Penn State so much.”
The unusually gloomy afternoon in Arroyo Seco marked the end of an era for the sport’s oldest active bowl: It was the final edition of the Rose Bowl guaranteed to feature its traditional matchup between Pac-12 and Big Ten teams.
The game will be a College Football Playoff semifinal next year, and the subsequent playoff expansion means the Rose Bowl won’t usually control which teams make the trip.
The game began under cloudy skies after a week of uncharacteristically gray skies in Los Angeles, and in the third quarter, rain landed on the Rose Bowl Game for only the third time since 1955. The visiting fans from two hardy cities showed little concern about Southern California's version of bad weather.
Penn State: Hosts West Virginia on Sept. 2.
Utah: Begins its quest for a third straight Pac-12 title by hosting Florida on Sept. 2.
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