WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The opening week of any college football season is not normally known for nail-biters as many teams look to schedule lesser opponents in the hope of getting a new season off to a successful start.
That theory goes out the window when the curtain lifter is a conference game. And throw in the fact that Penn State and Purdue have both been garnering attention to challenge for the top spot in their respective divisions in the Big Ten and it’s little wonder that the opener for both teams lived up to all the pre-game hype.
The Nittany Lions got a late touchdown pass from Sean Clifford to KeyVone Lee that covered 10 yards with just 57 seconds left in the game to lift Penn State to a 35-31 win over the Boilermakers on Sept. 1 at Ross-Ade Stadium in front of more than 57,000 fans.
It was the fifth time PSU has opened the season season against a Big Ten opponent and the seventh straight season the Nittany Lions have opened conference play on the road. The win also improved Penn State’s stranglehold in the series against the Boilermakers. The Nittany Lions, who have now won 10 straight games against the Boilermakers, improved to 16-3-1 lead in the all-time series between the two schools which began in 1951 when Purdue knocked off PSU 28-0 in West Lafayette.
Trailing 34-31 with 2:22 remaining in the contest, Clifford guided the Nittany Lions down the field on a drive that covered 80 yards in eight plays.
That drive nearly ended shortly after it began as Penn State was quickly faced with a third-and-three situation from its own 28-yard line.
That’s when Clifford began to orchestrate the Penn State offense to near perfection when Kaytron Allen ran for eight yards to give the Nittany Lions a first down and setting the stage for the dramatic comeback.
Clifford followed with a 27-yard pass completion to Mitchell Tinsley and then tossed a five-yard pass to Allen. He added completions to Lee and Tyler Warren for five and 15 yards, respectively, to move the ball to the Purdue-10 and connected with Lee for the game-winner on the very next play.
Lee capped the game-winning drive by catching a quick pass over the middle and skipping over a would-be tackle before outracing the Purdue defense to put his team back in front.
It was the seventh lead change in the game.
Purdue’s last-ditch effort came up short as Aidan O’Connell misfired on two successive plays while under heavy pressure as the game came to a close.
That Penn State found itself in a position to win in the closing minutes seemed improbable a short time earlier.
Clifford badly overthrew a PSU receiver and into the hands of Purdue’s Chris Jefferson, who returned the ball 72 yards for a touchdown that gave the Boilermakers a 31-28 lead with 9:04 remaining in the game. Jefferson was a two-time Division II All-American while spending the first three years of his career at Findlay before transferring to Purdue in time for the 2021 season.
The Nittany Lions led 21-10 at halftime, struggled to get its offense untracked coming out of the locker room for the second half. That was largely due to a Purdue defense that limited PSU to just 33 yards of offense in the third quarter. The Purdue offense, meanwhile, fashioned a pair of impressive touchdown drives to take a 24-21 lead into the final quarter of play.
King Doerue’s two-yard touchdown run capped the first possession of the second half for the Boilermakers and pulled them to within 21-17 with 11:16 remaining in the third period. They regained the lead near the end of the period when O’Connell found Charlie Jones for a score from seven yards out with 1:11 remaining and giving Purdue a 24-21 advantage.
Purdue had taken the early lead in the game when Mitchell Fineran connected on a 36-yard field goal with 3:38 left to go in the first period.
The two teams combined for four touchdowns in the second period.
The visiting Nittany Lions took their first lead of the game when Clifford passed 12 yards to Tinsley with 13:09 left in the first half. Purdue followed with a three-yard run from Doerue to swing the lead back to Purdue at 10-7 with 9:43 to go before halftime.
PSU got a pair of scores in a span of 1:42 late in the period as Clifford ran in from two yards out with 1:44 left before connecting on a pass to Brenton Strange that covered 67 yards with just two seconds remaining before halftime to give the Nittany Lions the lead at the intermission.
Clifford finished the night 282 passing yards after completing 20 of 37 passes for four touchdowns. His favorite receiver on the night was Tinsley, who caught seven passes for 84 yards and the one score while Strange added 77 yards on just two catches. Teammate KeAndre Lambert-Smith added 58 yards on four receptions.
Allen and Lee paced PSU with 31 and 30 yards, respectively, on the ground.
Purdue also relied heavily on its passing game on the night as O’Connell completed 29 of 58 passes for 356 yards and one touchdown.
Jones led Purdue in receiving with 153 yards on 12 receptions, while Doerue rushed 15 times for 61 yards and two touchdowns.
Penn State opens the home portion of its schedule Sept. 10 when the Nittany Lions play host to Ohio University. Purdue, meanwhile, returns to action at home that same day by entertaining Indiana State at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Purdue’s nine wins last season were the most since 2004.
O’Connell at least three touchdowns passing in five straight games heading into the 2022 season.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.