STATE COLLEGE — Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford sensed the pressure from the pocket and shuffled up just a bit to buy himself more time.
As he navigated the congested pocket, wide receiver KJ Hamler slipped behind the Idaho secondary and ran toward the end zone.
Clifford lofted the football to a wide-open Hamler, who plucked the ball from the air near the back of the end zone for the 36-yard score.
The quarterback’s first collegiate start couldn’t have gone much better.
Clifford tossed two first-half touchdowns to help Penn State beat Idaho 79-7 on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in both team’s season opener.
“As a quarterback, you have to make plays when you need them, and KJ just needed a little more time with that extra second,” Clifford said of his first passing touchdown as a starter. “I had to buy it, but the result is worth it.”
Penn State’s 79 points were the most scored since the 1991 season when the Nittany Lions defeated Cincinnati 81-0. Penn State’s 643 yards of offense were a school’s third-best.
It took Clifford just over two quarters to accumulate 280 yards passing and two touchdowns. He added another 57 yards rushing on seven carries to finish with 337 total yards. He hit on 14 of his 23 passing attempts. Clifford exited the contest after taking the field for one drive in the third quarter.
Penn State debuted several new starters in front of 104,527 fans, perhaps none more notable than Clifford, who became Penn State’s first new starting quarterback since 2016. After two years of waiting, Clifford seized the moment Saturday.
Hamler, Penn State’s leading receiver in 2018, shouldered the load for the Nittany Lions’ receiving corps. Hamler hauled in four catches for a game-high 115 yards and two touchdowns. Clifford targeted Hamler four times.
Penn State racked up 312 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
Penn State’s defense more than lived up to expectations, even if against an FCS opponent. Idaho was held to 47 yards and just one first down in the first half. The Nittany Lions recorded six first-half sacks, with defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos leading the way with 2.5. Defensive ends Jason Oweh and Shaka Toney and cornerback John Reid each added a sack through the first two quarters, while defensive tackle Robert Windsor pitched in with a half a sack.
“I thought the defense really kept them on their heels all night — their offense,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We played within our system. We talk about championship habits … and just little things that I noticed that I’m pleased with. A lot of guys got a lot of really good experience. Overall, a really good game for us. A really good opening game. Obviously we’re going to have a bunch of stuff that we need to look at on film and get better, but it’s a good start.”
The Nittany Lion defense forced Idaho to go three-and-out on 11 of its 17 drives, and the Vandals limped out of Beaver Stadium with just 145 yards of total offense (141 passing and four rushing).
Idaho entered Penn State territory just once in the first half and just three times through four quarters. The Vandals; third and final possession in Penn State territory came courtesy of a Nittany Lion fumble on a punt.
Earlier in the week, Franklin said he planned to deploy all of his running backs against Idaho. All five logged playing time and five scored touchdowns.
Devyn Ford took his second collegiate carry 81 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. He led all rushers with 107 yards. Meadville High graduate Journey Brown scored on runs of 23 and 2 yards and finished with 38 yards on five carries. Noah Cain tallied his first collegiate touchdowns (3 and 9 yards) while rushing for 44 yards. Nick Eury also scored his first collegiate touchdown on an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Ricky Slade earned 9 yards and one touchdown on five carries.
“The best thing about us is there’s no difference; no drop-off,” Brown said. “We have a set of different running styles, but there’s no drop off with our energy or how we run. We were out there, and we score touchdowns.”
While Penn State’s backs ran for a combined 331 yards and seven touchdowns, Franklin said he was equally as impressed with the group’s pass protection.
“I thought Sean was pretty comfortable in the pocket most of the night, and that was because our line play, but that’s also young backs,” Franklin said. “That usually is an area where young backs can miss a blitz pick up or whatever, I thought they played well from that perspective.”
Penn State finished with 342 yards passing. Nittany Lion backup quarterback Will Levis was 11-of-14 for 62 yards. Clifford said Penn State’s scout team defense prepared the quarterbacks for Idaho’s defense.
“Our scout team, our D squad, actually, is what we call them, did a great job all week of giving us a bunch of different looks of what we thought (Idaho) would come out in today,” Clifford said. “It was pretty similar, so I have a lot of appreciation for those guys.”
Penn State hosts Buffalo at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday.