Penn State brings a considerably different defense into Saturday's Outback Bowl, one competing with less than half its sack and tackle-for-loss production from the 2021 season. Playing against one of the SEC's most elusive quarterbacks will stress that reconfigured group even further.
Six Penn State starters have opted out of the bowl game, including five on defense. And the offense will be without All-American Jahan Dotson, who became the program's second receiver to top 90 catches in a season.
As a result, Penn State has gone from favorite to underdog against the Razorbacks for the first meeting between the teams. But coaches love to unearth opportunity from these moments, so Saturday's game presents a new moment for many Lions.
Don't consider the Outback Bowl as the season-finale. Instead, view it as Penn State coach James Franklin does: a preview (particularly on defense) of the 2022 season.
Penn State (7-5) vs. No. 21 Arkansas (8-4)
- When: Noon EST Jan. 1
- Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
- TV: ESPN2
- Streaming: fuboTV
- Betting Line: Arkansas is a 2-point favorite, according to SI SportsBook
- Series history: First meeting
- Penn State bowl record: 30-18-2
- Arkansas bowl record: 15-24-3
Penn State's defense will take on a new shape in Tampa, offering several glimpses into 2022. Five starters are skipping the game, while another is not in uniform. Safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, tackle Derrick Tangelo and linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith all opted out, while cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields is out as well. In addition, safeties coach Anthony Poindexter will call plays as the interim coordinator while Manny Diaz continues his transition.
The production gap will be significant. The group compiled 61 percent of Penn State's sacks, 54 percent of its tackles for loss and 42 percent of its overall tackles. Ebiketie led the Big Ten in TFLs (17), while Brooks (100), Smith (81), Brisker (64) and Ebiketie (62) were four of the team's top five tacklers.
So what to expect? The Lions likely will rotate edge rushers hoping to ignite a group that mimics Ebiketie's production. Nick Tarburton, who did not make a tackle for loss this season, will be pivotal among the group. Inside, watch for redshirt sophomore D'von Ellies to join starter Coziah Izzard, who replaced the injured PJ Mustipher during the season's second half.
Jesse Luketa's positional flexibility will come in handy as he can shift to linebacker, as can safety Jonathan Sutherland. At safety, Keaton Ellis likely takes over for Brisker, while returning starter Ji'Ayir Brown assumes more of a leading role.
Meanwhile, young linebackers Kobe King and Jamari Buddin likely will burn their redshirts to add depth at the position. Interim coordinator Anthony Poindexter said he won't "go off the rails" and change former coordinator Brent Pry's framework. But he will have plenty of new personnel with whom to work.
Penn State Players to Watch
Receiver Parker Washington: He was more than a complementary receiver to Jahan Dotson; Washington caught 57 passes and was No. 2 in targets behind Dotson. This is Washington's opportunity to begin emerging from Dotson's shadow, as Dotson did behind KJ Hamler.
Offensive lineman Olu Fashanu: Without injured left tackle Rasheed Walker, Fashanu becomes an important player. The 6-6, 313-pound lineman will make his first start in a high-impact environment. Big moment for the redshirt freshman. "Better be ready, right?" Franklin said this week.
Linebacker Curtis Jacobs: Without Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks alongside him, Jacobs becomes a key figure on defense, particularly against an Arkansas run game that ranked second in the SEC (217.3 yards per game).
Defensive end Smith Vilbert: The promising 6-6 redshirt sophomore played in 10 games behind Ebiketie and could be poised to emerge as a problem-causing edge rusher.
Arkansas Players to Watch
Quarterback KJ Jefferson: Arkansas' dual-threat quarterback averages 261 yards of total offense per game and has attempted 170 consecutive passes without an interception. He is one of five FBS quarterbacks to throw for 2,500 yards and 20+ touchdowns and run for 500 yards and 5+ TDs.
Running back Dominique Johnson: Once the team's No. 5 back and a preseason tight end, Johnson has emerged as the team's top rusher. He averages 5.8 yards per carry (10th in the SEC) and leads the team with 10 touchdowns. He's a power back (6-1, 240 pounds) who will challenge Penn State's linebacker tackling.
Linebacker Grant Morgan: A former walk-on, Morgan blossomed into one of the SEC's most prolific tacklers, with 207 over the past two seasons. Now a sixth-year senior, Morgan said of the Outback Bowl, "this is our national championship."
Linebacker Bumper Pool: Arkansas' leading tackler (120) covers a lot of ground, with seven games of 10+ tackles this season. And that is his real name.
Five Things You Should Know
1. Penn State is playing an SEC opponent in a bowl game for the 21st time. The Lions are 13-7 in bowl games vs the SEC.
2. Penn State is 14-10-1 in New Year's Day bowls, 10-11-1 in Florida bowls and 2-2 in the Outback Bowl.
3. Penn State has lost its last three bowl games in Florida. The Lions are looking for their first Florida bowl win since beating LSU 19-17 in the 2010 Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
4. Arkansas is looking for its first bowl win over a Big Ten team. The Razorbacks are 0-4 vs. the Big Ten in bowl games.
5. Arkansas' red-zone offense ranked second in the SEC (91.3 percent success rate). Penn State fields the Big Ten's top-ranked red-zone defense (66.7 percent success rate).
Franklin has said multiple times that Penn State is "fired up" for this game, so we'll take his word for it. But do the Lions have firepower left on defense to corral Jefferson and Arkansas' run game, which is one of two in the country with four backs who rushed for 450+ yards?
Defense carried the Lions all season, so now it might be the offense's turn. Quarterback Sean Clifford should be healthy and eager to begin a new touchdown partnership with Washington. Meanwhile, running back Noah Cain insists that the Outback Bowl will mark his return.
While Clifford and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich wheel out some bowl magic, Penn State's defense does just enough to clinch a win.
Penn State 27-24