STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Sean Clifford’s first game as Penn State’s starting quarterback was a short one.
A near flawless first-half performance backed by a dominant effort from the defense allowed Clifford to take the second half off as the 15th-ranked Nittany Lions hammered FCS foe Idaho 72-7.
Clifford left the game early in the third after his 14-for-23, 280-yard, two-touchdown effort helped spot Penn State a comfortable lead in his first career start. He chipped in 57 rushing yards on seven carries and hooked up with receiver KJ Hamler for scoring strikes of 36 and 21 yards.
“I need to watch the tape to really give an evaluation,” Clifford said, “But when you score 79 points, it’s not a bad day at the office.”
Hamler, who beat the Idaho secondary clean for both of his touchdown receptions, said afterward he realized Clifford was nervous.
“I just pulled him aside and just said, ‘Calm down,'” Hamler said. “And he went on a little rampage after that.”
Journey Brown and Noah Cain both added a pair of touchdown runs while Ricky Slade, Devyn Ford and Nick Eury each ran for scores. Jake Pinegar kicked two field goals and Jordan Stout made another for Penn State (1-0). Will Levis threw a touchdown pass to tight end Brenton Strange in the fourth quarter.
The Nittany Lions overcame early sloppiness before coasting the rest of the way to their biggest point total since an 81-0 win against Cincinnati in 1991.
A botched handoff and a misfire from Clifford forced them to settle for a pair of field goals on their first two possessions. But Penn State scored touchdowns on five of its next eight drives and went into halftime leading 44-0.
“The first two drives, he missed some throws,” Franklin said. “Not because of a lack of arm strength, was just inaccurate, his feet were probably a little antsy. After those first two drives, he admitted to me he really settled down and got comfortable.”
Idaho didn’t cross midfield until halfway through the second quarter, managed just one first down in the first half, went 1 for 15 on third down and finished with just 145 yards, compared with Penn State’s 673.
Mason Petrino got the Vandals on the board with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Logan Kendall in the fourth quarter.
Vandals coach Paul Petrino said he thinks he’d see more positives when reviewing the game film.
“Overall, we expected to play a lot better than we did,” Petrino said.
Clifford offered a warning to opposing offenses on Wednesday, one that appeared legit against Idaho. The Nittany Lions have speed on defense.
Defenders gang tackled all afternoon, often got pressure with four-man fronts and finished with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Cornerback John Reid picked off a pass while standout defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos finished with 2 1/2 sacks.
“I thought we played shutout football on defense even though the scoreboard doesn’t necessarily show that,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth, the team’s top red zone target last season, left the game after a helmet-to-helmet collision at the goal line with Idaho’s Lloyd Hightower in the second quarter.
He did not return and Franklin, per his own policy on reporting injuries, did not update the tight end’s status.
Idaho: The Vandals didn’t have much success with either Petrino or Colton Richardson at quarterback as their offensive line was outmatched and manhandled by what is expected to be one of the Big Ten’s best front sevens. Idaho will get a better look at what it has when it hosts Division II opponent Central Washington in a week.
Penn State: Although the Nittany Lions were shaky in the red zone early, their defense was anything but. With the game out of hand as early as the first quarter, defensive coordinator Brent Pry used the opportunity to get some of his younger players – most of whom he expects to play big roles this year – into action. In total, the Nittany Lions played nearly every player listed on their three-deep depth chart.
Beating up on an FCS opponent probably won’t propel Penn State much higher this early.
Idaho hosts Central Washington on Sept. 7.
Penn State hosts Buffalo on Sept. 7.
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