STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — A week after the worst game of his six-year career, a smattering of boos rang out from the 107,000 fans clad all in white when Sean Clifford was announced as Penn State’s starting quarterback.
Some wanted to see coveted freshman Drew Allar take over a struggling offense. By halftime, the Happy Valley crowd had changed its tone.
Clifford threw four touchdown passes in his 40th career start, Penn State’s defense forced seven punts and the No. 16 Nittany Lions beat Minnesota 45-17 on Saturday night.
“He’s a battler, he’s resilient and he’s tough,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think if you look around the country, there’s a lot of programs that would be super excited and happy about Sean Clifford being the quarterback.”
The “white out” crowd cheered Clifford as he found his rhythm.
Clifford threw darts over the middle to tight ends Tyler Warren and Theo Johnson on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter to put Penn State (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) up for good. The rout was on when he lofted a deep ball to Parker Washington for a 35-yard score on Penn State’s first possession of the second half.
Nick Singleton added two touchdown runs and Mitchell Tinsley caught another Clifford TD pass for the Nittany Lions, who avoided falling further behind in the Big Ten East after losing badly at No. 4 Michigan last week.
Penn State hosts No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday.
“I thought that we had a rhythm,” said Clifford, who completed 23 of 31 passes for 295 yards. “I thought we played a really clean game, to be honest with you.”
The Golden Gophers (4-3, 1-3) lost their third straight, this one amid difficult circumstances.
Starting quarterback Tanner Morgan was ruled out with a head injury, leaving the offense to freshman Athan Kaliakmanis who completed just 9 of 22 passes for 175 yards.
Kaliakmanis threw a short touchdown pass to Brevyn Spann-Ford in the fourth quarter, but an interception by Ji’Ayir Brown in the third spoiled a good looking drive.
“I didn’t like how we played,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “That’s three weeks in a row. That’s my fault; 100% I’ve got to be better as the head football coach, period.”
Even with the notorious Penn State student section breathing down their necks, the Gophers turned a Penn State turnover into the game’s first points.
Clifford threw a deep ball into double coverage where it was picked off by Justin Walley and returned deep into Penn State’s territory. The Gophers had to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Matthew Trickett for their only lead.
Penn State responded with a 41-yard Jake Pinegar field goal, then its defense started pushing Minnesota back. The Gophers lost yardage on each of their next two possessions. The Nittany Lions turned both of theirs into touchdowns thanks to Clifford.
He capped a seven-play drive with a 38-yard bullet to Warren over the middle, putting Penn State up 10-3 early in the second. He hooked up with Johnson for an 18-yard TD pass with no Gopher nearby on the next possession.
Minnesota closed the deficit to 17-10 by halftime as Kaliakmanis scrambled for yards to keep a nine-play, 90-yard drive going. It ended with Mohamed Ibrahim lunging in from 3 yards out.
Minnesota won the opening toss, deferred and chose to defend the end zone farthest away from the rowdy 20,000-seat student section.
The capacity crowd still had them on tilt.
The Gophers jumped before their first offensive snap, one of five false-start penalties against them in the first half. Minnesota took eight penalties for 52 yards overall.
“When we’re behind the sticks on offense, we’re not very good,” Fleck said.
Minnesota: Having lost two in a row to West opponents, the Gophers needed this game badly to stay alive in their division. They didn’t have much of a shot with the one-sided approach, especially with the number of miscues in the first half.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions needed a spark on offense after getting blown out in The Big House. Clifford seemed to find his swagger in this game. He’s always played his best football when he’s had a chip on his shoulder.
Minnesota: Hosts Rutgers on Saturday.
Penn State: Hosts No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday.
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