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Better late than never

PSU picks up first win of 2020 season

AP photo
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrates with wide receiver Jahan Dotson after the Nittany Lions’ 27-17 win over the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

ANN ARBOR — In the midst of a forgettable season, the Nittany Lions showed some fight as Sean Clifford looked more like his old self, the Penn State offense didn’t turn the football over and its defense held tough in a 27-17 victory over Michigan at the Big House on Saturday afternoon.

A battered Penn State team — playing without its top three players at the running back position as well as its All-American tight end — used a standout performance from true freshman running back Keyvone Lee who displayed vision, patience and the ability to shed tackles on his way to 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in his first career start.

“That was our fourth/fifth running back, and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We had one of the most respected running back rooms in the country. And to be in this situation, where we’ve got two true freshmen carrying the full load. And to see them do it…he’s 230 pounds, he breaks tackles, and he falls forward.”

Freshman Parker Washington had a breakout performance, catching nine passes for 93 yards in the victory.

The Nittany Lions (1-5) seemed to finally have an answer offensively as Penn State played mistake-free football and Clifford felt the rush and was more accurate delivering the football. Clifford finished the afternoon 17-of-28 passing for 163 yards, while also rushing nine times for 72 yards and a 28-yard TD in the second quarter.

Saturday’s game marked the first time that Michigan (2-4) and Penn State met as teams with losing records in the history of the series and the victory was the Nittany Lions first in the Big House since 2009.

“I think one of the things that I’ve been proud of over six years, is we have won all different ways,” Franklin said. “We’ve won pretty, we’ve won ugly, we’ve made comebacks, we’ve won by a bunch of points. And we hadn’t done that this year. So to see some young guys that were forced into significant roles figure it out today, and make plays, and do some of the dirty work, and play winning football, it was great to see.”

No matter the season, beating Michigan on the road still means something to Penn State.

“I don’t know if anybody in the program slept since (the Indiana game),” Lions defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “Losing is hard, man. It’s tough. It really takes a toll on everybody. We didn’t give in. We didn’t quit.”

“We’re just excited about this one and enjoying it,” Franklin said. “It obviously felt good. It was a lot of motion in the locker room, and a lot of great leadership, a lot of things said that are private to the locker room. But there was a lot of emotion.”

The Nittany Lions put together an impressive opening drive, covering 75 yards in 10 plays, taking the lead on a 6-yard run by Lee. Michigan answered as the opening quarter came to a close with Hassan Haskins plunging in from 2-yards out with 30 seconds left.

It was all Penn State in the second quarter as Clifford capped off an eight-play 76-yard drive on a 28-yard designed keeper. Clifford held the ball, took off a ran off tackle and beat the Wolverines defense to the pylon to take a 14-7 lead.

Clifford hasn’t wavered in his confidence and is proud of the effort of the team to persevere in recent weeks.

“I know how hard this team works and I know how hard I work, so there’s not one person or anybody who can tell me differently,” Clifford said. “I know the talent that we have, and I don’t really care what anybody else has to say about it.”

Following a three-and-out by Michigan, the Nittany Lions recovered a fumble by the Wolverines’ as Drew Hartlaub fell on the football at the Michigan 27. The Nittany Lions turned the turnover into points as Jake Pinegar hit a 22-yard field goal to give Penn State a 17-7 lead into the half.

The teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter and a Michigan touchdown run by Haskins from the 2-yard line cut the Penn State lead to 20-17 with 13:12 left to play. Haskins rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries including the two scores.

Penn State answered on its ensuing drive and took five minutes off the clock in the process, riding Lee, who broke off a 24-yard run. Two catches on the drive by Jahan Dotson kept the Lion’s offense rolling.

Backup quarterback Will Levis came in and capped off the drive with a 2-yard rushing score on a designed keeper for the knock-out punch, giving the Lions a 27-17 lead with 8:12 remaining. Levis was sprinkled into the game plan from time to time to run the football on read option plays as well as designed runs.

Michigan fumbled on third down on its next drive, but a penalty was called on the Nittany Lions’ Shaka Toney for illegally batting the ball to keep it from going out of bounds. The penalty gave the Wolverines a fresh set of downs but Michigan turned it over on fourth down.

“We found ways to do it today. The earlier games, we didn’t do that,” Franklin said. “But we just made a play when we needed to make a play. And then even though the strange penalty where we stopped them and they said batting the ball — they have been things that would have put us in a rut. We would have had a hard time fighting back through that, when it doesn’t feel fair. But life isn’t fair. Sometimes you’ve just got to find a way to battle through it,” Franklin said. “We did that today so it was just great to see.”

In an unusual season, playing in an empty Big House instead of 110,000 fans was bizarre.

“We drive up to the Big House, and there’s not a car on the road,” Franklin said. “There’s nobody giving you the middle finger on the ride up to the stadium like you normally get at every place. The parking lots are empty.”

In a season filled with chaos for the Nittany Lions; program, leaving with a win helps begin to mend the pains of a difficult year.

When you’re losing so much, I think you forget how winning feels and what is required to get the W,” Mustipher said. “We have to use this as momentum. It can’t just be a one-win thing. It has to continue these next couple weeks, and that’s how we have to finish out the season.”

Penn State will travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, next week to face Rutgers.

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