Rapid reaction: Penn State wears down after halftime in Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas
That dark cloud hanging over the Penn State football program seemed to be lifting, at least for a half.
The players who want to compete in 2022 and beyond stepped forward on a sunny New Year’s Day in Tampa, complementing Ji’Ayir Brown and other key holdovers in an impressive first 30 minutes.
Then Arkansas made an adjustment, going run-heavy led by dynamic dual-threat quarterback KJ Jefferson, and dominated the second half of the Outback Bowl to blow by the Nittany Lions 24-10.
On the one hand, the first college football game of 2022 was a meaningless exhibition with more than half a dozen Lions either opting out or sitting out for unknown reasons.
But on the other hand, it was the first public showing of how James Franklin’s program will move on from a rough offensive season and massive turnover on defense that includes the unit’s coordinator.
With Saturday’s result, there is reason for optimism and pessimism, depending on your disposition.
Maybe the program can move on just fine from Brent Pry’s exit to take over as head coach at Virginia Tech, if a season-best 5-sack first half is any indication. In the first half alone, the new-look Lions defense got 2 picks from Brown and the 5 sacks, including 1 from Smith Vilbert, who got extensive run in place of opt-out Arnold Ebiketie.
With Anthony Poindexter calling the plays and incoming DC Manny Diaz on the sideline, Penn State got after Jefferson, often sending a fifth rusher on passing downs while still preserving its bend-don’t-break success.
While veterans Brown, Curtis Jacobs and Jesse Luketa played huge roles, a bunch of younger players stepped up at all 3 levels. Up front, heretofore unknown DT Jordan van den Berg made his presence felt along with recent starters Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard. On the back end, Keaton Ellis, Johnny Dixon and Jaylen Reed provided Brown with solid backup.
It was all working really well until Arkansas coach Sam Pittman took a page from Bret Bielema’s playbook and attacked the Lions on the ground as the Illini did in their 20-18 9-OT victory over the Lions this season.
After going 10-of-14 passing for 74 yards and getting sacked 5 times in the first half, Jefferson threw only 3 passes in the third quarter. He did, however, run the ball 7 times for 101 yards and a touchdown, leading a ground game that produced 183 yards in the quarter. By the time it was done, Jefferson had 110 yards rushing and his team had 353.
When Sean Clifford’s second interception of the day ended a fourth-quarter scoring chance, Penn State was done. The Lions were down 24-10 and out of gas. It was all over but the “woo pig sooie” hoots from the Hogs fans at Raymond James Stadium.
Penn State finishes this season at 7-6, a precipitous fall from a 5-0 start. Franklin will enter his 9th season at PSU in the fall coming off back-to-back losing Big Ten seasons — and .500 overall during that stretch.
Outside of Saturday’s feel-good first half, there’s much to fret over in the 9 months until the 2022 opener at Purdue.
With 2 new starters on the offensive line, Penn State produced similar results Saturday. Ola Fashanu and Landon Tengwall weren’t necessarily any worse than Rasheed Walker and Mike Miranda, but not better either. The offense looked pretty much the same.
Parker Washington made some great catches, including an incredible 1-hander. KeAndre Lambert-Smith reeled in a 42-yard TD strike from Sean Clifford.
Noah Cain and Kevone Lee each had 1 or 2 nice runs, but became afterthoughts and finished with a combined 9 carries for 63 yards. Instead, Clifford led the rushing game, in yards and carries, going for 46 yards on 12 attempts.
It is now official: Penn State went the entire season without a 100-yard rusher, something that hasn’t happened to the program in at least 70 years.
Through the air, Clifford went 14-for-32 for 195 yards. But he was often running for his life and throwing off his back foot by necessity. Eventually, true freshman Christian Veilleux came in to mop up.
To put the perfect cap on this brutal season, Penn State tried a fake punt late in the first half that failed miserably. Somehow, the Lions still took a 10-7 lead into intermission.
Unfortunately, the second half proved the more apt reflection of this Penn State season.