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Key Plays from Penn State’s Rose Bowl Win

Here are the plays that won Penn State its first Rose Bowl since 1995.



Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin with offensive lineman Sal Wormley (77) as the Auburn Tigers take on the Penn State Nittany Lions at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

After a back-and-forth first half, Penn State pulled away from #8 Utah late to win the Rose Bowl 35-21 Monday night. The win acts as the exclamation point in a bounce-back season. The Nittany Lions finished 11-2 and will likely be in the top ten to end the year.

Party like it’s 1995

The game marks the most significant win for the program since 2016. It could even be considered the best win of the last decade. Penn State captured its second-ever Rose Bowl victory, the first since the 1994 season. In addition, James Franklin now has his third win against a top-ten opponent.

Most importantly, the game will undoubtedly be a springboard of momentum for the 2023 season.

We can – and will – spend all offseason dissecting the significance of this win on the overall trajectory of the Penn State football program. But before we look ahead, let’s look back on the moments that swung the Rose Bowl in the Nittany Lions’ favor.

Curtis Jacobs’s sack to end the first half

Curtis Jacobs’s sack of Cam Rising in the second quarter felt significant when it occurred. Despite holding Utah to 14 first-half points, it felt as if the Nittany Lions’ defense was beginning to crack near the end of the first half. After allowing 40 yards in the first quarter, Penn State gave up two 75-yard touchdown drives in the second quarter. Utah effectively used motion to set the edge in the run game, and the Penn State pass rush struggled to contain Rising.

After the Nittany Lions punted, Utah was approaching midfield with 11 seconds left in the second quarter. Jacobs’s sack prevented the Utes from maneuvering into scoring position to take the lead at the end of the half.


It was unclear, however, that the play would be a harbinger of what was to come.

Jacobs’s sack marked Penn State’s first of the day against the elusive Rising. The Nittany Lions would add five more in the second half. Although Jacobs was the only Nittany Lion to down Rising before his injury, it felt like the momentum was already shifting toward Penn State by the time he left the game.

Penn State essentially held the Utes scoreless for the entire second half. Utah added a touchdown in garbage time, but it was too late by then. Penn State held Utah backup Bryson Barnes to 112 passing yards. Barnes’s legs were a nonfactor, and the Lions’ defense pinned their ears back as Manny Diaz dialed up the pressure. The Nittany Lions held the prolific Utes’ rushing attack to 70 yards in the second half.

Utah’s offense was one of the toughest tests for Penn State all season, and the defense passed with flying colors. 

Nicholas Singleton’s 87-yard touchdown run

Pasadena and Penn State running backs – a combination that has withstood the test of time. The third-longest touchdown run in the bowl’s history, Nicholas Singleton dashed to his spot next to Ki-Jana Carter and Saquon Barkley in Penn State’s Rose Bowl folklore. 

Once Singleton crossed the goal line, Penn State never looked back. The score was the first of three unanswered touchdowns that would cushion the Nittany Lions’ margin of victory.

Singleton’s run was also the second of Penn State’s three scores on third down in the game. The Nittany Lions’ offense converted 54% of its third downs Monday, slightly above its season average. However, those conversions packed a punch. Along with the three scores, 288 of Penn State’s 448 total yards for the game came on third down. This includes two of the longest plays in Rose Bowl history.

The run was also the culmination of a historic night for Singleton. Though he only carried the ball seven times, Singleton ran for 120 yards (17 YPC) and two scores. With that run, Singleton also surpassed 1,000 rushing yards on the season, joining Barkley as the only other Penn State freshman to do so.

On a night that was a curtain call for Penn State’s veteran leadership, the young talent stole the show on offense. Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 419 total yards and four of Penn State’s five touchdowns. True freshmen standouts Singleton and Kaytron Allen tailed 173 yards and three scores on their own. They may have just performed in the shadow of Hollywood’s lights, but the Nittany Lions’ young stars proved they’re ready to shine on their own in 2023.

Sean Clifford’s 88-yard touchdown pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Sean Clifford put the Rose Bowl on ice. Clifford’s 88-yard bomb to KeAndre Lambert-Smith is now the longest touchdown pass in Rose Bowl history. Each side would tack on another score, but this touchdown sealed the game for the Nittany Lions.

Lambert-Smith had a spectacular game in his own right. He added to this score with three receptions for 124 total yards. As Penn State looks to add receivers in the portal this offseason, Lambert-Smith used the Rose Bowl stage to make his case as the Nittany Lions’ top target next year.

However, this play – and really this game – was about Sean Clifford. Objectivity be damned, Clifford had the performance he deserved. He completed 16 of 22 passes for 279 yards and two scores. Although the stats may not show it, Clifford kept plays alive with his feet. He orchestrated the line of scrimmage like an experienced opera conductor, seemingly always having the offense in the right play.

Clifford’s performance was a dreamlike ending to his career at Penn State. After years of his mistakes being amplified, Clifford played error-free football. The quarterback with all the program records but no signature win checked that final box Monday night. As he unofficially passed the torch to Drew Allar, Sean Clifford did so knowing that his legacy at Penn State was cemented in the Rose Bowl.

Game Stats – ESPN.

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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