STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The pregame mystery on senior day Saturday at Beaver Stadium concerned Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford and whether he would be healthy enough to play against Rutgers, but it had more to do with illness than injury.
A flu-like illness had been going through the Nittany Lions all week and Clifford was one of the affected. He did not participate in pregame warmups because, according to head coach James Franklin, he was undergoing intravenous treatment Saturday morning with the hope that he could start.
Clifford did start but took only 14 snaps, hit just 2 of 8 passes, and did not return to the game after the Nittany Lions’ fourth possession. The Lions had to turn to true freshman Christian Veilleux, making his collegiate debut, and came up with surprising results.
Veilleux came on late in the first quarter and threw three touchdown passes, including a 67-yarder to fellow Canadian Malick Meiga, to lift the Lions to a 28-0 victory over Rutgers before a crowd announced at 106,038 but appearing to be about 20,000 fewer.
Saying his team “faced as much adversity in this game as I’ve been around,” Franklin noted that 35 players were out because of the flu. He said 21 missed the game and 14 others played through it, including star wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
“Thursday it looked like a hospital ward in there,” he said. “There were IV’s everywhere. Friday was the same way. We didn’t have a scholarship quarterback at Friday’s practice. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. So the way the guys stuck together, a bunch of guys obviously that played and hadn’t played all year long in significant roles, I’m just really proud.”
In scoring more than three touchdowns in a Big Ten game for the first time all season, the Lions improved to 7-4 (4-4 in the Big Ten) and clinched their eighth straight winning season under Franklin. It also marked the first time in program history that the Lions had shut out two Big Ten opponents in the same season.
Rutgers (5-6, 2-6), which gained just 165 total yards, needs a win next week over Maryland to attain bowl eligibility.
Veilleux, from Ottawa, Ont., completed 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards for an offense that finished with 407 total yards. He threw an 8-yard TD pass to Jahan Dotson for the first points of the game with 1 minute, 3 seconds left in the first half. His 17-yard scoring pass to Parker Washington was the first of two in a 2:01 span, with the TD throw to Meiga following.
The Penn State defense limited Rutgers to 72 yards in the first half.
Clifford’s heir apparent?
Veilleux had been the Lions’ third-team quarterback for much of the season, but started making up ground after Clifford was injured against Iowa in Week 6 while competing against redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson. Franklin confirmed during the week that Veilleux had moved up to No. 2, and he got his chance Saturday.
Veilleux showed poise in the pocket and took some hits. He ran the ball 10 times, including two sacks, and gained 34 yards. On one run play, he leaped over the sideline and twisted his right ankle, but shook it off.
He completed 3 of 3 throws for 34 yards on his first touchdown drive, which covered 63 yards, and finished it with a pretty 8-yard throw to Dotson. The Lions took advantage of great field position at the Rutgers 42 in the third quarter and scored their second TD when Veilleux threw pretty much a jump ball to the deep right corner of the end zone and Washington outpositioned Tyshon Fogg for the catch.
Veilleux got a break on the next drive from his 33 when an apparent missed communication in the Rutgers secondary left Meiga, a redshirt freshman from Saint Jerome, Quebec, wide open at the 50. Veilleux easily hit him and Meiga loped joyously into the end zone for his first career TD. Keyvone Lee finished the scoring with a 7-yard run midway through the fourth quarter.
“I want to give a big shoutout to Christian Veilleux; he stepped in tremendously,” Dotson said. “It’s a tough job coming out here, playing in front of a lot of people, freshman year. I know it was tough for me so I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes as the quarterback leading the ship. He did a great job today.”
Unable to finish his senior day
Clifford was nowhere to be seen during warm-ups, his absence particularly obvious during 7-on-7 drills. He did come out for senior day ceremonies and spent the final three minutes doing quick warm-up tosses with Dotson. But he did not look anything like himself during the four possessions that he played, with the Lions posting positive gains on only four of his 14 plays.
After taking a hard hit on a scramble on a missed third-down opportunity, Clifford walked to the bench, visited the medical tent and headed for the locker room. He returned to the sideline in the second half and watched.
“He felt like he could go, the doctors and trainers felt like he could go,” Franklin said. “We felt like he gave us the best opportunity based on experience and not having a whole lot available behind him. He came to the sideline after the third series or whatever it was and I said, ‘Sean, I’m gonna go with Veilleux’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, I get it.’”
A real snoozer
The Nittany Lions and the Scarlet Knights spent the first 24 minutes trying to make a first down while trying not to wear out their respective punters. Penn State’s Jordan Stout and Rutgers’ Adam Korsak ended each of their team’s first six possessions by punting the ball away. Stout averaged 44.9 yards on his kicks, driving five of six inside the 20. Korsak, an Australian who utilizes more of a rugby style punt, placed two inside the 20 and averaged 41 yards. The Lions had the better drive starts during that time but only nine of their 23 plays went for positive yardage.
The Nittany Lions scored on their seventh possession. In the second half, Stout punted twice early in the third quarter and Penn State ended its final three drives with touchdowns.
Reshuffling the offensive line
The Nittany Lions were without two starters, tackle Rasheed Walker and center Mike Miranda, at the start of the game because of what Franklin had described as a non COVID-related ailment going through some of the team. They lost tackle Caeden Wallace in the first quarter for the rest of the game, and center Juice Scruggs left the game for a few plays but came back. Two tackles, true freshman Landon Tengwall and redshirt freshman Jimmy Christ, saw their most significant action of the season.