STATE COLLEGE — Little by little over the last three games, Penn State has come closer to being the team coach James Franklin thought he’d have before the season began.
A come-from-behind, 39-24 win over Michigan State on Saturday is evidence enough for Franklin to know the Nittany Lions have put their early-season struggles behind them.
“The resiliency that we have shown, I’m proud of them,” Franklin said.
“It’s not something that we’ve experienced or been through, so to find a way to show that type of heart, I’m very proud of them. The last three weeks we have found ways to win which is really what we’ve done for the last seven years.”
Quarterback Sean Clifford completed 17 of 27 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns and added 48 yards and another touchdown on the ground. Parker Washington hauled in a pair of touchdown passes for the Nittany Lions (3-5) who trailed 21-10 at halftime.
Backup quarterback Will Levis added a rushing touchdown and receiver Jahan Dotson returned a punt 81 yards for a score for the Nittany Lions who won their third straight.
“It’s nice to see the team playing complete games,” Clifford said.
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“When the defense needs help, the offense is stepping up. When the offense needs help, the defense is stepping up.”
Payton Thorne made his first start at quarterback and completed 22 of 39 passes for 325 yards with three touchdowns and an interception for the Spartans (2-6).
But despite a strong start, the Spartans couldn’t keep up as the game progressed. They scored just three points after halftime, and the Nittany Lions scored 21 unanswered points to close out the game.
“There’s no such thing as a safe lead, especially in college football,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said. “We all know you’ve got to play for 60 minutes. You’ve got to play for four quarters.”
Penn State had trouble in the first two.
Except for a 24-yard field goal from Jake Pinegar and a 31-yard touchdown run from Clifford two possessions later, the Nittany Lions sputtered in the first half. They mustered just 50 rushing yards on 19 other carries, converted just four of eight third downs, committed four penalties and went three-and-out on their final drive of the half with 1:21 left and all three timeouts.
The Spartans were much more efficient thanks to Thorne’s arm.
The freshman quarterback found a wide-open Jalen Nailor down the middle for a 45-yard score that made it 7-3. About seven minutes later, Thorne threaded a pass through tight coverage to Tre’Von Morgan from 26 yards out to put the Spartans up 14-10.
Michigan State went up 21-10 when Nailor outleapt a defensive back to snag a jump ball in the corner of the end zone with 1:26 to play in the half.
But Penn State came out of halftime with more energy. Clifford and Levis alternated snaps and steered Penn State’s offense into the red zone where Clifford hooked up with Washington for an 8-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion catch from Jahan Dotson cut Michigan State’s lead to 21-18.
Matt Coghlin responded with a 24-yard field goal to extend the Spartans’ lead.
It didn’t last long.
Clifford and Levis each completed back-to-back deep balls and Levis scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Penn State a 25-24 lead at the end of the third.
Washington put the game out of reach with a 49-yard touchdown pass, and Dotson added an 81-yard punt return touchdown just over two minutes later for good measure.
End of the line
The Nittany Lions bottled up Michigan State’s running game all afternoon. The Spartans managed just 64 rushing yards on 31 carries.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense made 10 tackles for losses with four sacks, five quarterback hits and an interception.
“Everybody just realizes, this is who we are,” defensive end Shaka Toney said.
Michigan State: Despite the lousy result, the Spartans played much harder than they did in their blowout loss against No. 3 Ohio State a week ago. They also may have found something in Thorne, who started his first game and looked confident, poised and in control for most of the afternoon.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions’ goal was to win out after starting 0-5. Though they accomplished that, and looked much better on offense and defense over their final three games, this team still has a lot of room to improve.
Michigan State: TBD, pending seeding to Big Ten championships.
Penn State: TBD, pending seeding to Big Ten championships.