The post-game dancing, laughing, and hugging that had been absent from the Penn State locker room all season returned on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions finally won a game. It wasn’t for the national championship, but given all the adversity and lack of success over the past eight-plus months in a pandemic, it may have felt just as sweet.
Freshman Keyvone Lee rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown. Sean Clifford played sound football and added a 28-yard scoring run, and the defense made a big fourth-quarter stop to lift the Lions to a 27-17 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., their first of 2020.
For the first time all season, Penn State (1-5) did not commit a turnover the entire afternoon, held the lead at halftime, and never trailed for 60 minutes. The Lions rushed for a season-high 254 yards, owned a 13-minute edge in time of possession, and held the Wolverines (2-4) to 286 yards to gain their first win at the Big House since 2009.
Most importantly, after weeks of wondering why good practices didn’t translate into performance on game days, they found the switch and flipped it.
“We really had to understand what it took to win,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “When you’re losing so much, I think you forget how winning feels and what’s required to get the W on Saturdays. I think the monkey’s definitely been lifted off our backs. We have to use this as momentum. It can’t just be a one-win thing. It has to continue these next couple weeks.”
Clifford, who entered the game having committed 10 of Penn State’s 13 turnovers in the first five games, returned to the starting lineup and completed 17-of-28 passes for 163 yards. With a number of slants and short patterns, his longest completion was for 22 yards, and he took only a couple of deep shots. He also rushed nine times for 73 yards.
In a testy exchange with a reporter, Clifford said he never doubted himself.
“Why won’t I doubt myself? Because I know how hard this team works,” he said. “I know how hard I work. So there’s not one person or anybody who could tell me differently. And so it’s just that. I know the talent that we have, and I don’t really care what anybody else has to say about it.”
The 230-pound Lee, who carried 22 times, took over as featured back in the absence of the injured Devyn Ford and rushed for 50 yards on the Nittany Lions’ opening possession, capped by his 6-yard scoring burst. His 24-yard run in the fourth quarter set up an insurance touchdown with 8 minutes, 12 seconds remaining, a 2-yard run by backup quarterback Will Levis.
Another freshman, Caziah Holmes, rushed for 34 yards on 10 carries.
“Lee is 230 pounds. He breaks tackles, and he falls forward, and [Holmes] did some nice things as well,” coach James Franklin said. “But for me to sit here and say that I saw that and I knew that? We thought they were both talented kids, but you don’t get a whole lot of reps when you’re fourth and fifth on the depth chart, and that’s without spring ball or a traditional training camp. So it’s great to see, and I’m proud of them.”
Outscored, 117-33, in the first half of their previous five games, the Lions went in at halftime with a 17-7 lead. The Wolverines closed the gap to 20-17 on Hassan Haskins’ 2-yard run early in the fourth quarter before Levis’ score made it a 10-point game again.
The defense closed off Michigan’s final possession with a stop on fourth-and-one at the Lions’ 37 but not before one of the strangest plays of the season, involving defensive end Shaka Toney, a graduate of Imhotep Charter.
Quarterback Cade McNamara, scrambling to the right, was sacked by Penn State’s Daequan Hardy and fumbled. Toney reached the ball before it went out of bounds and batted it sideways to teammate Jayson Oweh, who returned it to the Michigan 29. But the officials flagged Toney for “illegal batting,” a 10-yard penalty that nullified the turnover and gave the Wolverines a first down in Lions territory.
However, on a fourth-and-one from the 37, quarterback Joe Milton was stopped inches short of the line to gain by linebacker Ellis Brooks. The Lions gained possession and ran out the final 5:37 with the help of Lee’s 33 rushing yards.
In previous weeks, the loss of a takeaway because of a penalty would have damaged the Nittany Lions’ effort and psyche. On Saturday, it was different.
“This year has been a year of adversity,” Brooks said. “It’s not anything we’re not used to at this point. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but in terms of just being able to go back out there with the mindset of we can overcome, and that circumstances don’t make us, we make our own circumstances.”