EAST LANSING, Mich. – The weather was awful, and the brand of football wasn’t much better for much of Saturday at Spartan Stadium, but No. 6 Penn State struck quickly before the game became a case of two teams literally trying to keep their heads above water.
Sean Clifford threw four touchdown passes – three to tight end Pat Freiermuth – and the Nittany Lions made a number of plays on special teams that kept Michigan State pinned in its own territory, resulting in a 28-7 victory that enabled them to finish their second segment of the season at 8-0.
The Lions, who have their second bye week of the season coming up, also improved to 5-0 in the Big Ten and get a chance to rest before a battle of unbeatens at No. 17 Minnesota on Nov. 9.
Playing against the Spartans (4-4, 2-3), a team that beat the Nittany Lions in five of the last six years, Clifford was efficient over the first 35 minutes, when the Lions scored all their points. He went 14 of 19 for 140 yards and the four scores, all before the heavy rain started coming down – in buckets all of the time, sideways most of the time.
The junior made scoring throws of 16, 19, and 6 yards to Freiermuth and hit KJ Hamler with a 27-yard pass over the middle that the receiver took to the house. Clifford finished the day 18 of 32 for 189 yards, although he did throw a third-quarter interception, only his third of the season, breaking his streak of 88 passes without one.
“We’ve had some close games,” Clifford said. “We’ve had some blowouts. We’ve had [games] in the middle. It’s really been a balance of all. But the overriding factor is we’ve won every single one, and I think that is the goal. So, I think we’ll do anything for a win.”
Contributions from special teams led to 14 points. First, defensive end Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter) blocked a 46-yard field-goal attempt by Chris Coghlin, and the ensuing 54-play drive ended in the Clifford-to-Hamler score early in the second quarter.
Second, gunner Dan Chisena fell on a punt that was muffed by the Spartans’ Brandon Sowards at the 6-yard line early in the third quarter, with Clifford hitting Freiermuth on the next play for his third touchdown .
Punter Blake Gillikin averaged 44.2 yards on eight punts and pinned Michigan State inside its 20 five times.
“Obviously, we were able to punt the ball and pin it deep,” head coach James Franklin said. “We were able to do that pretty consistently tonight. I think the last two weeks, that’s been huge for us. That’s also [gunner Drew] Hartlaub, and that’s also Chisena, and that’s also [ong snapper Chris] Stoll as well.”
The defense held the Spartans to 265 total yards and forced three of their four turnovers. Marquis Wilson and Jaquan Brisker came up with interceptions, and defensive end Jayson Oweh’s sack of Brian Lewerke forced a fumble recovered by linebacker Ellis Brooks.
“It wasn’t hard coming out like we did,” said linebacker Micah Parsons, who led the Lions with 12 tackles. “You think about last year, and you think about where we’re trying to go as a program and as a team. You build your own momentum each and every week, and that’s what we did today.”
For all their success, the Lions had some issues that Franklin addressed after the game. They were penalized nine times for 104 yards – both season highs. Among those infractions were three for unsportsmanlike conduct, one of which resulted in the ejection of defensive tackle Antonio Shelton.