Clifford Starts, But Nittany Lions Fall to Illinois After Nine Overtime Periods

Story posted October 23, 2021 in CommRadio, Sports by Jack McCune

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s 101st Homecoming weekend ended in disaster as the Nittany Lions fell to Illinois 20-18 in nine overtimes on a chilly, rainy Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.

The game marked the first time in Division 1 FBS history that a game reached at least the eight overtime period.

Head coach James Franklin’s team got in the end zone just twice all day, once in regulation and another in the eighth extra period.

“Obviously we didn’t get the job done,” said Franklin, who mentioned the difficulty he has addressing the team after a close loss. “It’s probably the toughest part of my job, … staying there in the locker room and giving [the team] what they need to hear at that moment.”

The game ended when Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters, who didn’t start the game, found receiver Casey Washington in the end zone for a two-point score in sudden death after the Nittany Lions were unable to convert on their opportunity.

The game was the second-lowest scoring of the season for the Nittany Lions, beating just the season-opener when the blue and white scored 16 against Wisconsin.

After leaving the game at Iowa early and not practicing last week, quarterback Sean Clifford returned to the field. He threw for just 165 yards, the lowest for him this season not including the Iowa game.

His one touchdown pass on a 42-yard strike to KeAndre Lambert-Smith wasn’t enough. And with a couple of overthrown passes and a tending to his right chest area throughout the game, it appeared Clifford wasn’t 100%.

He denied that any pain was holding him back, but Franklin said the offensive game plan was adjusted for his injury.

“We had to be smart,” Franklin said. “He was limited today. That’s why we tried to mix in the run and the pass in there to take some of that [pressure] off.”

The Fighting Illini went with backup and Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski in regulation; the senior Peters was knocked out of their previous game. Peters didn’t appear until after regulation.

The Illini offense had little passing success, accumulating just 38 yards, but head coach Bret Bielema used Penn State’s lack of PJ Mustipher, who is out for the season, to his advantage.

The rushing tandem of sophomore Chase Brown and freshman Josh McCray combined for 357 yards and ran mostly up the left side — exactly where Mustipher would’ve been.

The blue and white’s running game didn’t share the same fortune as it ran for just 62 yards.

The Nittany Lions’ defense made the difference and kept the game close. Just a minute and a half into the game, sophomore linebacker Curtis Jacobs read Sitkowski’s bloop throw beautifully and picked off his first collegiate pass.

The Illini benefitted on a questionable call at the end of the first quarter in a scoreless game. Inside his own 10-yard line, Brown was stuffed on a rush attempt up the gut when the ball was knocked loose by Jaquan Brisker and scooped up by the blue and white for a touchdown.

However, after a conference, the officials overturned the call and announced that Brown’s forward progress had stopped before the fumble to keep the Illinois drive going.

But the Illini punted and the Nittany Lions scored on their next drive anyway. Clifford ended the 93-yard drive with his 12th touchdown pass of the season to Lambert-Smith for the first points of the game.

After a fumble from Sitkowski, forced by Brandon Smith and recovered by Dvon Ellies, Clifford and company were right back in Illinois’ territory to start the second quarter.

On third down at the 17-yard line, Clifford found Parker Washington open on a fade route to the right side of the end zone, but his pass was too strong and out of the sophomore receiver’s reach as the Nittany Lions settled for a 35-yard boot by Jordan Stout to go up 10-0.

The Illini then scored their first points of the game on an eight-minute, 15-play possession for 75 yards as Brown punched it in the endzone after his squad’s first redzone trip of the day.

The teams entered the locker rooms with a 10-7 Penn State lead at halftime.

After a Penn State punt to start the third quarter, Sitkowski fumbled again in his own team’s territory, this time on a blindside strip sack by fifth-year Derrick Tangelo with a Chase Brown recovery.

But the blue and white were unable to capitalize on the turnover after Stout missed a 40-yard field goal wide right.

Two and a half minutes later, Illinois kicker James McCourt missed from 50 yards as he pooched the ball wide left into the Penn State student section after Ji’Ayir Brown broke up a pass to the end zone for tight end Luke Ford earlier in the series.

McCourt would finally connect on his squad’s next drive on a 37-yarder after a plunder of penalties to tie things up at 10.

Fast forward twelve minutes, and four possessions, later, neither team was able to score again in regulation as both teams were headed to overtime for the first time this season after Joey Porter Jr. made a potential game-saving tackle on the final Illinois drive as he dove on Brown after an 18-yard carry up the gut with open field ahead of him.

Bielema’s team won the overtime toss and gave the Nittany Lions the ball first. After Dotson dropped a pass from Clifford in the left corner of the end zone, Penn State settled for a 31-yard field goal by Stout that went right down the middle to make it 13-10.

McCourt answered with a 39-yarder after an Illini trick play on third down was nearly disastrous as a pass by wide receiver Isaiah Williams was almost intercepted by Brisker to win the game.

After two more kicks in the second overtime, the game went to sudden death two-point tries. The Nittany Lions got the ball first but were unable to convert as Sean Clifford dropped an open pass at the 1-yard line on a flea flicker pass from tight end Tyler Warren. But Sitkowski and crew couldn’t take advantage as his pass to an open McCray was also dropped by the running back.

After six more overtimes, the Illini took the victory as Penn State lost on Homecoming for the second time in four years.

Clifford didn’t want to use his limitations as an excuse for the game, and he said the whole gameplan adjusted to his constraints.

“[I’m] getting extra treatment,” Clifford said. “Obviously, I felt good going into this game, and that’s why I played. I just have to keep resting and keep getting better.”

The Nittany Lions will head to Columbus next week to take on Ohio State.


Jack McCune is a fourth-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email