Rushing Defense Struggles, Offense Inconsistent as Penn State Loses Outback Bowl to Arkansas
TAMPA. – The new year didn’t bode well for the Nittany Lions as No. 21 Arkansas (9-4) defeated Penn State (7-6) 24-10 at Raymond James Stadium in the 2022 Outback Bowl to conclude each team’s season.
Head coach James Franklin’s squad lost six starters – wide receiver Jahan Dotson and five defenders – head coach James Franklin’s first bowl opt-outs in his head-coaching career. The holes showed, particularly in the second half, when Penn State was outscored 17-0.
Arkansas ate up the Nittany Lion rushing defense, which was missing long-time coordinator Brent Pry, when the Razorbacks ran for 361 yards – 225 more than Penn State’s opponents’ average during the regular season.
It was clear that defenders Brandon Smith, Arnold Ebiketie and Jaquan Brisker were sorely missed, and Franklin admitted it.
“Nobody wants to hear me say that. But was that a factor in the game? Yes,” Franklin said about the lack of defensive depth. “I wasn’t going to bring it up, but it is a fact.”
Each offense’s rust showed in the first quarter after neither team totaled triple digits in yards, and both quarterbacks shared an interception on the stat sheet.
Razorback quarterback KJ Jefferson’s errant pass went to Penn State senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown for his team-leading fifth pick of the season on Arkansas’s first drive, while just two plays later, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford gave it right back to defensive back Greg Brooks Jr.
But after the defensive battle, the Razorbacks scored first on the last play of the first quarter after running back Raheim Sanders punched it in for his fourth touchdown of his true freshman season.
Clifford and company answered on Penn State’s second drive of the second quarter on a wide-open 42-yard touchdown pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith to even the game at 7-7.
Penn State’s next series ended in a 43-yard field goal attempt by Jake Pinegar in his first start of the season. After missing a 50-yarder in the first quarter, the senior kicker made his first field goal of the year to give the blue and white a 10-7 lead with 45 seconds left before halftime.
Arkansas’s drive looked promising when the Razorbacks took it from their own 36 to Penn State’s 38, but Brown ended the opportunity with his second interception of the game to seal the deal on the opening half.
After an impressive display of defense in the first half, Jefferson found his way into the end zone on the first drive of the third quarter after a designed keeper after a 7-play, 75-yard drive to give the Razorbacks the lead back at 14-10 as the Nittany Lion defenders couldn’t stop the run game.
Arkansas rushed for all 75 yards, including 46 yards on four carries from Jefferson. Arkansas had just 11 yards on the ground in the entire second quarter.
After a 36-yard kick from Cam Little on their next series, the Razorbacks didn’t throw a pass again on their next scoring drive near the end of the third when Sanders scored again after backup quarterback Malik Hornsby rushed for 32 yards to the 1-yard line for a 24-10 lead.
After a promising 14-play, 65-yard drive to begin the fourth quarter, Clifford threw his second pick of the game, this time in the red zone to senior defender Joe Foucha on a 1st and 10.
With 8:30 to go in the game, Franklin went with a quarterback change as true freshman Christian Veilleux took over behind the offensive line. But the switch was too late as Arkansas took the 24-10 victory.
Despite the lack of five defensive starters, redshirt sophomore defensive end Smith Vilbert tied an Outback Bowl record with three sacks in the game in his first collegiate start.
The former New Jersey basketball star, who didn’t play football until his senior year at high school, gave a Nittany Lion faithful a preview of the next group of potential star players on the defensive side of the field.
Shortly after the game, senior defensive end and linebacker Jesse Luketa announced he’s heading for the NFL Draft, he announced on his Twitter.
Fellow defenders Nick Tarburton and Curtis Jacobs both had high praise for their teammate as a leader on and off the field, and Jacobs emphasized Luketa’s influence in his work ethic and play style.
“Since I was in seventh grade, … he’s taken me under his wing,” Jacobs said. “He’s one of the greats [at Penn State]. … He just really put me in the position to be a leader, and I’m incredibly indebted to him. He, Ellis [Brooks] and Brandon [Smith] all rubbed off on me.”
Penn State has now lost four out of its last six bowl games as the program will begin to prepare for the offseason.
Jack McCune is a fourth-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Contributors
Senior / Broadcast Journalism
Jack McCune is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Yardley, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Philly and just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. He attended Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. He’s a huge fan of the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, Penn State football and Penn State basketball. He’s a sports anchor and multimedia reporter for the Centre County Report. He’s a Football Insider for CommRadio. His talk show, Broad Street Bros, airs Thursday nights at 5:45, as he talks about Philly and Penn State sports. He hopes to some day become a play-by-play announcer for football, basketball and/or baseball, and he is also interested in becoming a bartender.