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With contributions from the offense, defense and special teams, Penn State rallies from 11 points down to beat Michigan State, 39-24

After trailing 21-10 at halftime, the Nittany Lions outscored the Spartans, 29-3, in the second half, getting two touchdown passes from Sean Clifford and an 81-yard punt return by Jahan Dotson.

Penn State head coach James Franklin jumps into the arms of his players while celebrating the 39-24 victory over Michigan State.
Penn State head coach James Franklin jumps into the arms of his players while celebrating the 39-24 victory over Michigan State.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State’s senior class knew just what to do Saturday after the Nittany Lions fell behind by 11 points at halftime, and that was to not repeat the pattern that it had established in each of the first five weeks – all losses – of the reduced Big Ten season

In his first start of 2020, Shane Simmons teamed up with fellow redshirt senior defensive end Shaka Toney and chased Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne over every blade of grass in Beaver Stadium. Free safety Jaquan Brisker patrolled the secondary like a bank guard. Strong safety Lamont Wade turned into the team’s best kickoff returner in Week 8.

After trailing 21-10 at the break, the Lions outscored the Spartans 29-3 in the second half and made it a memorable Senior Day despite the lack of fans in the stands, picking up their first home victory of the season, 39-24, and their third consecutive win overall.

During an 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions (3-5) never were able to climb out of the double-digit hole they had dug in the first half. Thorne, a redshirt freshman, lit them up Saturday for 10 straight completions, 190 yards and three touchdowns in the second quarter alone.

But the defense shut the Spartans down in the second half, the offense rode two touchdown passes from Sean Clifford to freshman Parker Washington, and Jahan Dotson chipped in with an 81-yard punt return as Penn State found a way to win, a skill it had lacked earlier this season.

“I think I have less than five home losses in my career here,” said Toney, the former Imhotep Charter star. “You don’t let nobody come in your house, sit on your coach, eat a sandwich and think it’s going to be sweet. I think everybody came in the locker room [at halftime], calmed down, fixed some things and made adjustments. The second half showed what kind of team we are.”

The Spartans (2-5) had only 147 yards of total offense and Thorne was held to 11 completions in 26 attempts for 123 yards in the second half. Much of that production for the team and for Thorne came on the visitors’ final drive of the game, which stalled at the Penn State 10.

» READ MORE: After a slow start, Penn State’s youthful defense is showing signs of improvement

Simmons, who playing time was reduced early in his career by lingering foot problems, was in on seven tackles with two tackles for loss, 1½ of his team’s four sacks, and a pass he deflected at the line. He also attracted attention at the pregame Senior Day ceremony when he came out to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

‘My Way’ was really everything that we do,” he said. “We all play for Penn State, but all of us make up Penn State. Everything that I have been through since being here and battling through adversity with my foot, with school, just everything I’ve been through at Penn State made me who I am today. I just really wanted to play for my boys and play for all the seniors.”

The defense’s biggest stop came late in the third quarter, after Clifford’s 8-yard pass to Washington and a two-point conversion closed the Lions’ gap to 21-18. The Spartans drove to a first-and-goal at the 4 but Simmons tipped a third-down pass after two run plays went nowhere. Matt Coghlin kicked a 23-yard field goal but it remained a one-score game.

“I think the game could have been different if they score [a touchdown] right there,” Franklin said. “So the fact that we were able to battle and hold them to three points, and the offense was able to come out and answer, we kind of started to chip away at their lead.”

Backup quarterback Will Levis’ 1-yard run with 2 seconds left in the quarter gave Penn State the lead for good at 25-24 and was the first of three TDs in a span of 3:38. Clifford threw a 49-yard scoring pass to Washington and Dotson took a Spartans punt to the house.

“For your Senior Day, you don’t want to go out with a loss,” said Clifford, who went 8 of 13 in the second half for 140 yards and the two scores. “That’s the last thing we wanted to do. It was just going back to our roots. We said it as an offense, we’ve got to get on the board this first [second-half] drive and set the tone, and we did that.”

At the end, the seniors were the last to leave the field. Some took a victory lap although no fans were around to extend their hands from the front row. Some laid down on the field while others looked around for what may not be the last time, since the Big Ten might schedule Penn State for a home game next Saturday.

» READ MORE: Amid all the sacrifices they made to play football, Penn State players say it was worth it

“Playing here for five years, to close it out in a positive way, that’s awesome,” Simmons said. “This season has really taught all of us to battle through adversity, and really stay positive.”