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Penn State 39, Michigan State 24: Four takes from the Nittany Lions’ third straight victory

Trailing 21-10 at the half, the Nittany Lions outscored the Spartans, 29-3 in the second half behind two touchdown passes from Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson's 81-yard punt return for a TD.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws a pass against Michigan State in the second quarter. He completed 8-of-13 passes in the second half for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws a pass against Michigan State in the second quarter. He completed 8-of-13 passes in the second half for 140 yards and two touchdowns.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Penn State’s modest two-game winning streak appeared to be in trouble in the early stages of Saturday’s game against Michigan State. But the Nittany Lions rallied from 11 points down at intermission with an impressive showing in all three phases of the game and defeated the Spartans, 39-24, to improve to 3-5 on the season.

Here were some of the storylines of Senior Day at Beaver Stadium:

A significant second-half comeback

Penn State trailed, 21-10, at the half, facing a double-digit halftime deficit for the sixth time this season. But after going 0-5 the first five times they were behind by 10 or more at the break, the Nittany Lions played a strong second half in which they outscored the Spartans, 29-3. Sean Clifford completed 8-of-13 passes in the second half for 140 yards and two touchdown throws to freshman Parker Washington. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson also came up with the Lions’ first return touchdown of the season, taking a punt back 81 yards for a score. The Lions picked up another TD on a 1-yard run by backup quarterback Will Levis. The defense also shut the door on a Michigan State offense that gained 242 yards in the first half but only 147 in the second, 70 on the Spartans’ last drive of the game, which ended on downs at the Penn State 10.

Simmons’ memorable Senior Day

Fifth-year senior Shane Simmons, who has battled injuries throughout his career, made his first start of the season one that he’ll always remember. The 6-foot-3, 257-pound defensive end was in on seven tackles with two tackles for loss, 1½ sacks and a pass he deflected at the line of scrimmage. He led a Penn State charge that limited Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne to just 11-of-26 passing for 123 yards in the second half, 71 of them coming on the final drive. In all, the Nittany Lions had four sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Special teams come through

Jahan Dotson, who has been the Nittany Lions’ best pass receiver all season, displayed his skills returning punts when he returned one in the fourth quarter 81 yards for a touchdown. Dotson caught the punt, took off to the left, squeezed through a few Spartans around midfield and went all the way down the left sideline for the score. It was Penn State’s first punt return touchdown since DeAndre Thompkins returned one in the rain at Heinz Field against Pitt in 2018, and it’s the first special teams return of any kind this season. Lions punter Jordan Stout had one of his best games of the season, averaging 41.8 yards on five punts with three inside the 20.

Mistakes can kill

Penn State could not recover from two mistakes in the first quarter. The more significant error of the two came when freshman Keyvone Lee powered into the end zone on a 9-yard run, but the Nittany Lions’ Will Fries was flagged for holding. The Lions had to settle for a field goal, but their percentage of touchdowns in the red zone dropped to 41.4% (12-of-29). Prior to that, free safety Jaquan Brisker provided an early spark with an interception. But the flame blew out quickly when he fumbled the ball back to Michigan State. The Spartans did not score off the turnover, but it was another missed opportunity for Penn State.

Secondary’s early struggles

The Penn State secondary had much success in its team’s victories over Michigan and Rutgers, holding the opponent to 112 and 122 passing yards, respectively. But Thorne, a redshirt freshman who was making his first career start, did pretty much what he wanted against the unit in the second quarter, when he completed all 10 of his passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Thorne was successful with play-action and usually found his receivers a good distance from the defenders. The one exception was on a 26-yard scoring pass to 6-foot-7 Tre’Von Morgan, who skied over Joey Porter Jr. and Lamont Wade to catch the perfectly thrown ball in the back of the end zone. Thorne also connected with Jalen Nailor on TD strikes of 45 and seven yards. The secondary played much better in the second half, and Thorne often had to scramble away from the rush in an attempt to find an open receiver.