He beat the odds, history, Purdue. Did Penn State's Sean Clifford find an answer?

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

Sean Clifford didn't really need any confidence.

Certainly not after serving as Penn State's starting quarterback for the past three years through every condition imaginable − winning big and losing tough, empty stadiums and packed White Outs, through injury, illness and a virus pandemic.

Rather, he may have just needed to know this: that things really can work out again.

Especially when everything seems to conspire against you.

That's the kind of quarterback a lot of Penn State fans figured they were getting when he began starting games back in 2019. It just hasn't worked out that way, especially most recently − at least until Thursday night's dramatic 35-31 victory at Purdue.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) is chased by Purdue linebacker Semisi Fakasiieiki (97) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Clifford had played well enough again, managed to hold yet another late lead ... before one more inexplicable meltdown. Another unexplainable pass thrown from who-knows-where, that made no sense for its sudden dysfunction.

Fourth quarter at Purdue. Leading by four. Plenty of time to find his receiver. He easily stepped up and threw − and winged the ball a few feet over Mitch Tinsley's head. It sailed right to a Purdue defensive back, who not only made the interception but returned it more than half of the field for the go-ahead touchdown.

Everything crashed one more time, like it did against Indiana and Maryland and Iowa two years ago. Like it did against Iowa and Illinois and Michigan last season.

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Misfortune molded into a frightening, repeated reality?

It all built a bit at a time. From that ruined undefeated season three years ago to his try-too-hard malfunctions two years ago to that crushing injury and struggle last year.

A lot of fans didn't want Clifford to come back for a sixth season, couldn't bear to watch things find some way to crumble yet again.

And then came the Purdue opener with seven lead changes and another mysterious Clifford injury and one more crushing turnover.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) scrambles against Purdue during the first half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Penn State got the ball back with just over two minutes to play.

This time, Clifford transformed at the end like never before. Every decision and throw went his way. He was calm, accurate, spread the ball from one receiver to another.

It was about the prettiest sequence of football plays you could draw up.

And so the Lions won. He won. Won a game they almost did not.

It wasn't led, at the most crucial time, by the defense (last year at Wisconsin) or because the opponent melted down or because their own home White Out crowd willed them along.

They won because their senior quarterback shrugged off another collapse in the making. Because he played his best when it actually mattered most.

Penn State and Clifford needed such a thing more desperately than many may realize, if they hope to ever raise above their current status.

Bench Clifford? Well, he just threw four touchdowns and ran for another and somehow overcame his own malfunction in a hostile environment.

Such a thing could actually do wonders for a guy like him, a team like this.

Not because of beating Purdue. That could have happened in 20 different scenarios, considering Penn State's advantage in overall depth and talent.

Rather, because of Clifford and exactly how this materialized.

For two years Penn State has been searching for an answer, a breakthrough, a salve.

Something to build from one week to the next and the one after that.

It's really up to them now, all of these players to believe and play better for what they just accomplished.

It's not just on the quarterback anymore.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.