PASADENA, Calif. — Sean Clifford soaked it all up.
The Penn State quarterback had just given the performance of a lifetime and certainly one of his best ever in the all-white uniforms that somehow shined even brighter despite rainy conditions at the 109th Granddaddy of Them All on Monday night. His 16 completions for 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns were far from any career highs, but every one of them was among the most memorable of an up-and-down career that ended by thumping No. 8 Utah 35-21 and securing the school’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1995.
It was a fitting conclusion for an 11-2 campaign that was one of the program’s best in recent memory — and it came with a trophy to prove it. Clifford enjoyed every minute of it, from the crowd-pleasing scrambles to the deep shots he connected on, to the final jog off the field deep in the fourth quarter that brought those who remained among the poncho-clad 94,873 to their feet in applause.
Yet amid all the rightful praise upon the conclusion of one career, it was also hard not to imagine a more fitting passing of the torch for James Franklin’s team. Clifford deserves all the plaudits for the outcome, but it was his supporting cast stepping up in unison that might get Penn State fans even more excited over the future to come.
One job done, another ready to begin.
“We talked about it. It gives us a lot of momentum. The standard of what we expect next year is well-defined,” said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “Once you taste something like this, it’s hard to go back.”
High bars are nothing new for this program, which has national championships in the trophy cabinet and a Big Ten title won just a few years ago under its current head coach. What’s different this time around, though, is what’s in place as eyes turn to a 2023 season in which they may well be favorites to win the league and make a return trip to Pasadena for the semifinal that takes place next year.
All you had to do was look around the Rose Bowl to see it all on full display.
Though Joey Porter Jr. was celebrating with his teammates in the aftermath, the Nittany Lions didn’t seem to miss him as much as expected. Defensively, they held the Utes to just 45% passing and allowed just one big passing play until the final two minutes of the game. Outside of Ja’Quinden Jackson’s dancing, tackle-breaking 19-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, a big play offense was limited to just three runs of more than 15 yards.
Kalen King, who flew under the radar with Porter earning All-American honors, stepped up all year to lead the defense in pass breakups and will return after snagging one of the team’s two interceptions. Fellow sophomore KeAndre Lambert-Smith was an offensive star, recording the longest touchdown catch in Rose Bowl history when he raced past the goal line on an 88-yarder.
Then there are the young tailbacks that everybody was already talking about in 2022. Nick Singleton busted out an 87-yard touchdown run in which he was barely touched amid a 120-yard effort on just seven carries. Kaytron Allen chipped in with a touchdown run of his own and came up just shy of giving the Nittany Lions a pair of 1,000-yard freshman rushers on the season.
“It means a lot. Going into the season, a lot of people didn’t have high hopes for us — they didn’t really have us winning anything,” King said. “But I feel like this season, and this win particularly just boosted us for a good start next year and put more respect on Penn State as a program.”
Penn State’s lone losses in 2022 were to a pair of playoff teams in Michigan and Ohio State, the latter of which they led in the fourth quarter. Those teams face plenty of questions going into next season, between a number of key players off to the NFL or other starters departing through the Transfer Portal.
Heck, who knows if Wolverines’ coach Jim Harbaugh will even be around by kickoff next season given how much his name has come up in connection to NFL job openings.
While Penn State does have to replace Clifford behind center, there is a well-groomed successor already waiting in the wings with game-time experience in former five-star Drew Allar. Those around the program know he has the physical tools to be even better than any of his predecessors, and optimism is running high that the offense can be tailored even better to his big arm.
“Winning just brings positive energy everywhere. We’re a positive team,” remarked Allar. “We can’t worry about expectations. We just have to go in every day and put the work in and let the results take care of themselves.”
The rising sophomore QB threw just one pass in the game but knows what is expected of him moving forward. He’ll be taking on the mantle of big man on campus with quite a high bar to clear after the way Clifford finished the season.
Allar seems ready for it, however, excited even, and knows he’ll have plenty of help along the way. In addition to the host of skill position players that shined on Monday night, potential first-round left tackle Olu Fashanu — who didn’t play in a game in which PSU averaged 8.3 yards per play — already announced he was skipping out on the NFL Draft to return to State College for another go around.
“I’m just so proud of these guys,” said an extra exuberant Franklin when he wasn’t hugging half his team. “I was here in 2016, one of the better Rose Bowl games, and watched somebody else celebrate. And I wanted this for them. I couldn’t have wrote the script any better.”
The script for what might end up becoming the last traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 Rose Bowl certainly was quite good for all those in Franklin’s corner. Even more exciting for those around the program?
“That was another sample going into next year,” added Lambert-Smith. “Y’all will see some more.”
More of Lambert-Smith. More of Allen and Singleton. More of King. More of Penn State.
Perhaps even more of all of them winning big games in 2023, too.
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