TAMPA, Fla. – Penn State entered the Outback Bowl shorthanded on defense and the effect of the six absent players really showed in the result Saturday, a 24-10 win by No. 22 Arkansas before a crowd of 46,577 at Raymond James Stadium.
But the Nittany Lions offense, where All-America wide receiver Jahan Dotson was the only player to opt out, also failed to show even though all remaining members of that unit were present with the exception of injured tackle Rasheed Walker.
The Lions (7-6), who lost six of their last eight games, had just one good quarter, the second, when they scored all their points – a 42-yard pass from Sean Clifford to a wide-open KeAndre Lambert-Smith in the end zone and a 33-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar.
The remainder of the game was a mix of a missed field goal, a crazy fake punt play that ended up going nowhere, and a brutal red-zone interception of Clifford in the end zone that wiped out any comeback hopes early in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions gained just 94 total yards in the second half and 323 for the game in posting a season-low for points.
Meanwhile, the Razorbacks (9-4) got their efficient rushing attack untracked after halftime behind 245-pound redshirt sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson. Jefferson rushed for 102 yards in the third quarter alone, including an 8-yard scoring run that gave Arkansas the lead for good.
The Hogs, who entered the game averaging 217 rush yards per game (12th in FBS), ended the contest with 361. Jefferson finished with 110 yards in 20 carries and won game MVP honors.
“They committed to running the quarterback,” Lions head coach James Franklin said of the second half. “They went with zone read on the perimeter, then they went zone read inside where they were reading the linebacker. If he ran over the top with the running back, they pulled it and hit the quarterback inside. That obviously was a major factor in the game.”
Grinding it out
Despite playing defense without five starters who opted out, and injured cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, the Nittany Lions did a good job holding off the Razorbacks’ rushers. They also put the heat on Jefferson, who was sacked five times in the opening two quarters, three of them coming from Smith Vilbert, previously a little-used end who received more reps with all the personnel shuffling happening on the unit.
But life for the Penn State defense changed in the third quarter. The Razorbacks received the kickoff and went 75 yards in seven plays – all runs – with Jefferson accounting for four for 42 yards. Jefferson began the second march with a 19-yard run and Cam Little closed it with a 36-yard field goal. The quarterback was shaken up on a 34-yard run on the next possession, but backup Malik Hornsby went for 32 yards to set up Raheim Sanders’ 1-yard run, his second TD of the day. By that time, the Nittany Lions were pretty much gassed on this sunny, 80-degree day, and the game was pretty much decided.
“I think their tempo was pretty impressive,” defensive end Nick Tarburton said. “I think defensively we were on the field a pretty good bit. As soon as they snapped the ball, they were right back on the ball. So it was a lot of tempo. Hats off to them, they did well in the running game.”
The Lions’ task was made more difficult with four starters on their front seven -- end Arnold Ebiketie, tackle Derrick Tangelo and linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith -- opting out, as well as safety Jaquan Brisker. Castro-Fields’ absence was revealed in warmups when he took the field with no pads and wearing shorts, an indication he was unavailable.
Jesse Luketa, who moved to linebacker from his defensive end spot and had nine tackles, announced after the game he would skip a fifth season allowed by the NCAA and prepare for the NFL draft.
Clifford closes an uncertain season
Clifford was up and down – mostly down – the entire game. He completed just four his first 11 passes for 67 yards before finding his touch in the second quarter. An obvious mixup in the Arkansas secondary set up an easy 42-yard TD pass from Clifford to Lambert-Smith, and then the fifth-year senior quarterback threw two key completions to set up Pinegar’s 33-yard field goal.
But Clifford struggled in the second half, completing only four of 12 passes for 23 yards. The first two possessions netted 15 yards and ended with a pair of punts. The third drive showed promise, with Clifford scrambling five times for 41 yards on a march that went from the Penn State 25 to the Arkansas 10. But a first-and-goal pass into double-coverage turned disastrous as Joe Foucha picked the throw off in the end zone, ending the Lions’ last threat.
“We weren’t consistent enough but we were able to create some big plays,” Franklin said of the first half. “We didn’t make those plays in the second half. We had some opportunities, dropped some balls.”
Franklin said the team’s medical staff pulled Clifford from the game after the interception but did not give out any information on a possible injury.
Freshman backup Christian Veilleux finished up for the Lions. With Clifford coming back for a sixth season, two highly rated quarterbacks reporting to campus later this month, and Veilleux, it will be interesting to see how Franklin manages the competition.
Big season for Brown
All-Big Ten safety Ji’Ayir Brown accounted for the Nittany Lions’ two takeaways with a pair of interceptions, including one late in the first half when Arkansas attempted a gadget play while they were in field-goal range that could have tied the score at the half. Brown finished with a team-high six interceptions on the season.
Franklin said Brown did not practice all week and was not cleared to play until Friday afternoon.
“That was tough,” Brown said. “I just watched the guys from the side, took mental notes. Actually that’s what prepared me, taking those mental notes, watching a lot of film. I got a lot of extra film to watch. I came out and I was able to execute today the way I wanted to.”