Sean Clifford's career comes 'full circle' with Penn State's Rose Bowl win

Sean Clifford gets standing ovation from Rose Bowl crowd (1:29)

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford gets a standing ovation from the Rose Bowl crowd as he walks off the field. (1:29)

PASADENA, Calif. -- When Penn State coach James Franklin last stood inside the Rose Bowl in January 2017, he could only look on as USC kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds to end the 103rd edition of the game in heartbreaking fashion for the Nittany Lions.

Six years later, Franklin was able to give his current quarterback, Sean Clifford, a proper send-off. Clifford, a sixth-year senior, walked off the field to an ovation in the fourth quarter of Monday's game after helping Penn State redeem that 2017 loss by leading the Nittany Lions to a 35-21 victory over Utah.

"I was here in 2016, one of the better Rose Bowl games, and watched somebody else celebrate, and I wanted this for them," Franklin said. "I couldn't have written the script any better for Sean Clifford to be the offensive player of the game. ... It's awesome to be sending these guys out the right way."

Clifford didn't just exit with a win. He had one of the more effective games of his college career, throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns on just 21 attempts and 16 completions. One of those scores was something that had never been seen in the Rose Bowl's 109-year history.

After Penn State running back Nicholas Singleton split a throng of Utah defenders with an 87-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Clifford's 88-yard touchdown pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith set a record for the longest passing touchdown in Rose Bowl history -- and all but sent the Utes and the sea of red-clad fans who had descended on Pasadena home with a second straight loss in the annual Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup.

Penn State became the first team in the history of the bowl to have two scoring plays of 80 yards or more.

"It was up for debate whether we wanted to take a shot," Clifford said of the pass. "I'd been seeing the same look all game, so I was definitely a proponent for taking that shot, and I know KeAndre wanted it, too."

Asked about Clifford's "up-and-down" career, Franklin made sure to point out that Clifford had "a lot of ups" more so than downs, but the finishing touch on his career couldn't have been more fitting. Clifford said he remembers his dad surprising him with a trip to the Rose Bowl when he was in elementary school and that it became a core memory for him.

"It means a lot," Clifford said of getting to close out his career at the Rose Bowl. "I just remember really falling in love with football, specifically falling in love with the quarterback position. For it to come full circle and then to be able to just be a spoke in the wheel for this team in the Rose Bowl is just such a blessing."

While Clifford basked in celebration on one end of the stadium, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising walked off in pain on the other end, with a brace on his knee and a noticeable limp. For the second straight year, Rising exited the Rose Bowl game with an injury and did not return.

Down seven points with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter, Rising put his head down and tried to convert a long third down with his legs. The junior quarterback, who made plays on the ground all season, crossed the first-down marker but did not have time to slide before being sandwiched by three Nittany Lions defenders.

Rising stayed down for a few moments before walking off the field gingerly with the help of Utah trainers. He then entered the injury tent before walking off to the locker room under his own power. Rising later returned to the sidelines wearing street clothes.

"The injury to Cam is a leg injury and it doesn't look good, I can tell you that," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We'll wait for confirmation from the medical people at a later date, either tonight or tomorrow. It looks like it could be something that takes a while to recover from."

Much like last season against Ohio State -- when Rising exited the game with a head injury -- the Pac-12 champions could not recover from losing their starting quarterback. Sophomore Bryson Barnes entered the game after Rising's departure and promptly ended his first four drives with an interception and three punts. Rising is eligible to return to Utah for another season, but it remains to be seen whether he will do so or enter the NFL draft.