Penn State vs. Arkansas: 5 things to know about the Nittany Lions' Outback Bowl opponent
See if this sounds familiar, Penn State fans.
A team knocks off a couple of ranked opponents early in the season, climbs into the top 10 in the national rankings, then has a 3-game skid and winds up in the middle of the pack in its conference.
Meet the Nittany Lions’ bowl opponent, Arkansas. The teams will square off for the first time ever on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The trip to Florida is a bit of a stunning development for Penn State, which most media prognosticators had pegged for a trip to Las Vegas or to New York for the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium.
Penn State’s brand apparently still carries some cachet, as James Franklin’s squad gets a surprisingly warm reward for a 7-5 campaign that fizzled out with 5 losses over the regular season’s final 7 games.
Arkansas’ season under second-year coach Sam Pittman followed a similar trajectory, but with a lesser peak and a better recovery. The Razorbacks (8-4, 4-4 SEC West) held a No. 8 AP ranking after opening the season 4-0 and finished at No. 21 in the final CFP rankings.
Here are 5 things to know about the Razorbacks:
This is a breakthrough season
This is Arkansas’ first bowl appearance and first winning season since 2016, when then-coach Bret Bielema took the program to the Belk Bowl. The Hogs finished 7-6 that year, and then went 11-35 over the next 4 seasons. With a victory over Penn State, they will have their first 9-win season since going 11-2 in 2011.
This year’s hot start included wins over then-No. 15 Texas (40-21) and then-No. 7 Texas A&M (20-10), and 2 of the 4 losses came against CFP semifinalists Georgia and Alabama, the later by only 7 points (42-35).
A common opponent — Auburn
Arkansas had perhaps its worst outing the year in the last of its 3 straight midseason losses, falling 38-23 to Auburn — the same Tigers that Penn State beat 28-20 in Week 3.
Though they outgained visiting Auburn 460-427, the Hogs gave up a scoop-and-score as well as a 71-yard TD pass. Coming off a heartbreaking 1-point loss to Ole Miss a week earlier, they also went 0-for-3 on 4th-down tries and possessed the ball for less than 3 minutes of the fourth quarter as Auburn pulled away.
Dual-threat QB KJ Jefferson leads offense
Quarterback KJ Jefferson averages 214.8 passing yards per game and has the 4th-best QB rating in the SEC, buffeted by a 21-3 TD-INT ratio. The sophomore also has 554 rushing yards, second-best on a very balanced ground attack that ranks 2nd in the SEC at 217.3 yards per game.
A wideout to rival Jahan Dotson
Jefferson’s go-to guy is junior Treylon Burks, who will enter the bowl game with 66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 TDs this season. He finished the regular season with a 129-yard game in a 34-17 victory over Missouri, giving him a school single-season record with 6 100-yard games.
His 179 yards on 8 receptions against Alabama were eye-opening. He’s just the third receiver since 2000 to record 150-plus receiving yards and 2 TDs against the Tide.
Defense is susceptible
Arkansas’ defense ranks in the middle of the pack in the SEC, but has struggled since losing standout safety Jalen Catalon to season-ending shoulder surgery.
Over the 6 games he played, Arkansas gave up an average of just 156 passing yards per game. Now, that number is up to 215.1. Arkansas allowed just 3 TD passes in the 6 games Catalon played. The Hogs allowed 12 in the next 6.
The Razorbacks surrendered at least 37 points in each of their 4 losses.