STATE COLLEGE − When it was over, one senior leader made sure to find the other on the Beaver Stadium field.
Penn State had just stormed hard down the stretch to beat Michigan State and finish its best November in six years.
Saturday's 35-16 victory didn't just give the Nittany Lions 10 victories, it provided some well-timed confirmation of everything quarterback Sean Clifford and safety Ji'Ayir Brown, and their other team leaders, did to pull the Lions back into the Top 10 and national prominence.
"He was sitting there crying all in my face," Brown said with smile, when asked about that onfield embrace with Clifford. I'm like, 'Don't make me cry here.'
"This is a chapter we're both closing. We've been through a lot together, me and Sean, throughout this year. It's been a helluva ride for both of us."
This victory showcased clutch performances in all three phases and an overall control, as expected, against a heavy underdog at home.
Here are the grades for that fourth straight victory that should propel the Lions to a big New Year's Six bowl:
A steady, grinding performance, overall, with just enough big plays sprinkled in.
Most efficient effort throwing, running and decision-making for senior QB Sean Clifford, playing for the final time in Beaver Stadium. His 19-of-24 (79%) throwing for 202 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception, was a fitting send-off.
He relied on formerly injured/overlooked/underwhelming receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who gave the best overall performance of his career. His 5 receptions for 83 yards and a diving touchdown catch were just part of it. He delivered, perhaps, the best throw of the day, too − a perfectly-placed, trick-play pass to tight end Theo Johnson for a 48-yard score.
Rookie running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen were forced to work hard for their combined 160 yards on 38 carries. But they held onto the football and produced enough to provide necessary balance and eat clock.
The Lions dominated in total yards (410-254), converted 50% if their third downs and both of their clutch fourth-down attempts.
Another suffocating effort against the run (yielding just 25 yards) and consistent rush-pressure on quarterback Payton Thorne.
Give credit to Thorne and his dynamic receivers, though. They kept coming at the Lions and strung together one big throw-and-catch after another in the middle portion of the game.
Stellar Senior Day: Celebrate Sean Clifford for who he is ... and how he's leaving Penn State
The Lions just have too many high-revving playmakers right now. This time, linebacker Abdul Carter, safety Ji'Ayir Brown and cornerback Kalen King dominated throughout to lead things.
Carter terrorized the Spartans in the backfield all afternoon and evening (7 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks) and nearly came up with a dramatic interception that might have closed things out much earlier. Brown was everywhere, once again, and caused one more turnover that set up a touchdown. King led everyone with five passbreakups for the defense that's better than anyone at knocking the ball away.
Special teams: C+
It's tough getting over two unexpected Jake Pinegar missed field goals. He had been working on such an impressive groove before shanking two easy kicks that loomed large for a while.
Still, punter Barney Armor bounced back with a stellar effort (50-yard average) and the Lions did force two fumbles on Michigan State returns.
The Lions have been exemplary in covering kicks and punts all season.
The Lions always seemed a step ahead, especially on offense in the second half, even with Michigan State emptying its tank.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich continues to impress with play calling from his "T-formation" or full-house backfield looks. Defenses simply have too much defend with Singleton, Allen and multiple stud tight ends on the field at the same time.
One of the best pre-snap designs and playcalls of the season came on Singleton's 12-yard touchdown reception to break things open late in the fourth quarter.
The Senior Day effort was steadily impressive, overall. The Lions looked prepared to handle Michigan State's best shots.
They certainly were expected to deliver the knockout punch earlier against a struggling opponent.
But more credit should go to Michigan State's talented offense for never folding and continually pressing in the pass game.
The Lions, meanwhile, answered every volley and continued their roll through November with an emotional performance on offense and defense. The undervalued heroes were the tight ends, all three who combined for seven catches, 96 yards and three scores.
Play of the game: Fourth-down TD, Sean Clifford to Nick Singleton
The Lions were clinging to a five-point lead with under five minutes to play.
Fourth down on the Michigan State 12 yard line.
The Lions went for it, lining up in a full-house backfield or "T formation." At the last moment, they shifted hard to the left side to gain a significant pre-snap mismatch: four receivers against only three defenders.
The Spartans didn't call timeout.
So Clifford took the snap and fired a screen pass to Nick Singleton, who easily navigated his blocking into the end zone for the clinching score.
Player of the game: Sean Clifford
He gets the nod over brilliant efforts from receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith and linebacker Abdul Carter.
What an outgoing performance for the senior quarterback who gave arguably the most proficient performance of his career in his final home game.
He missed on just five passes, threw four TDs without an interception or fumble and ran the ball well when necessary.
He was his best game-manager self, which lifted everyone else up.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Penn State football: Sean Clifford, James Franklin vs. Michigan State