Penn State vs. Arkansas: Final thoughts and a prediction for the Outback Bowl
Let me finish scraping the egg off my face and take another shot at analyzing the upcoming junior varsity football game in Tampa, Fla.
Billed as a New Year’s Day bowl game — because, technically, it is — Penn State will give diehard fans a reason to crawl from bed to couch Saturday morning for the noon ET kickoff of the Outback Bowl.
And the game against Arkansas will be worth watching, so long as the difference between 8-5 and 7-6 isn’t your primary concern. If you’re a fan of the Blue-White spring game at Beaver Stadium, this glorified scrimmage is for you.
The first look for answers to pressing questions about the state of the Nittany Lions heading into next fall will come forth from this SEC-B1G friendly. This truly will be the first game of the new year for a Penn State team with 6 opt-outs and counting.
So let’s take a look at what we will and won’t be watching on ESPN2 in the first college football game of 2022:
Who’s not playing holler ‘I’
Silly me, the egg on my face comes from guessing that Penn State players committed to the Senior Bowl would also play with their teammates one last time. There was some logic behind the thought: If Jahan Dotson, Jaquan Brisker and Arnold Ebiketie planned to risk injury to play an exhibition game in February, maybe they’d also play in a meaningless bowl game — if for no other reason than to stay sharp prior to the Feb. 5 all-star contest in Mobile, Ala.
On the other hand, players are way less likely to get hurt in an exhibition game with special rules that prohibit blitzes and any blocking below the waist. There’s no rational reason to fault the players’ decisions, but maybe the haphazard daily releases deserves some criticism. But enough of lamenting the state of the game in the age of NIL and the transfer portal.
In addition to the 3 players mentioned above, Penn State’s top 2 tacklers — LBs Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith — have opted out. Rasheed Walker, billed as the best player on the offensive line (a backhanded compliment, for sure), is doubtful too. Just as I finished typing that sentence, on Wednesday afternoon, DT Derrick Tangelo became the sixth Lion to announce his opt-out to begin NFL Draft prep. That’s the price I pay for trying to work ahead.
Three others committed to the Senior Bowl — DB Tariq Castro-Fields, LB-DE Jesse Luketa and punter/kicker Jordan Stout — so far haven’t announced any plans to skip the trip to Florida. But I wouldn’t rule out further surprises in the hours leading up to kickoff.
With the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreading, that’s another reason for those heading to the NFL to lay low for a while. Risk management is part of the game when millions of dollars await. Better safe than sorry.
Let the position battles begin
The roster machinations have been in full swing since James Franklin and company arrived in Tampa for pre-bowl workouts. Franklin addressed the moving parts Wednesday in a joint media session with Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman.
Here’s what Franklin said:
OL: Ola Fashanu will start in place of Walker, the first college start for the 6-5, 320-pound freshman who was a 3-star recruit in the 2020 class. True freshman Logan Tengwall (6-6, 326) might get into the mix too, along with whichever holdovers take the field.
LB: Curtis Jacobs takes the lead role with his 2 running mates off chasing NFL dreams. Luketa could spend more time at LB rather than DE, but that’s dicey considering leading sack specialist Ebiketie isn’t playing. Multi-year special teams captain Jonathan Sutherland can work in at both safety and linebacker, Franklin said. Junior Charlie Katshir should see more than his usual amount of action, and the coach may consider burning the redshirts of freshmen Kobe King and Jamari Buddin.
“We’ve been very strategic about playing guys in four games, playing some guys in three games, saving a game for a bowl, things like that,” Franklin said. “As the season went on, we had the flu spike, other things, it was hard to do that. So yeah, we have some guys that we’re going to have to burn their redshirts for this game.”
Penn State might also spend time in a 4-2-5 alignment, though that might not work well against Arkansas’ run-heavy attack.
WR: Malick Meiga (3 catches, 78 yards, 1 TD) will continue to audition for 2022, as he has over the past several games. He’ll want to show out now, before transfer Mitchell Tinsley (1,402 yards and 14 TDs for Western Kentucky this year) arrives to claim a spot alongside Parker Washington atop the depth chart. Sophomore KeAndre Lambert-Smith will be trying to secure more playing time too.
Elsewhere: In the absence of Tangelo, Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard will continue to man the middle of the defensive line. With Ebiketie out, Nick Tarburton takes on a greater role and Smith Vilbert and Zuriah Fisher might get extended looks. Already essentially a starter, nickel DB Daequan Hardy should get even more playing time.
Having Penn State’s roster handy might be a good idea.
What Arkansas is bringing
Arkansas will be without star receiver Treylon Burks — expected by some to go ahead of Dotson in the NFL Draft — and sacks leader Tre Williams. If there are others, we don’t know about them at this point.
The key guys who will play are dual-threat quarterback KJ Jefferson on offense and linebacker Bumper Pool on defense.
Jefferson averages 214.8 passing yards per game and has thrown for 21 TDs with only 3 INTs. He’s also the team’s second-leading rusher, part of a balanced ground game with 4 players with between 498 and 592 yards.
Pool leads the team with 120 tackles, and fellow LBs Grant Morgan (96 tackles) and Hayden Henry (94) aren’t far behind.
I don’t expect Penn State (7-5, 4-5 B1G) to suddenly become more potent than it was a month ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Christian Veilleux gets some series at quarterback regardless of how well or poorly Sean Clifford starts out. With key players out on both sides of the ball, the Lions likely will lose in the trenches and elsewhere. Don’t be surprised if the Hogs jam the ball down the throat of the PSU defense like Illinois did, and they’ll probably finish drives with points way better than the Illini did.
Maybe PSU’s youngsters will prove ready for primetime, but I wouldn’t bet on it — not enough of them, anyway. Arkansas (8-4, 4-4 SEC), playing its first bowl game since the 2016 Belk Bowl under a dynamic 2nd-year head coach, logically stands to be the more motivated team.
Arkansas 27, Penn State 20