TAMPA, Fla. — Penn State capped an often-disappointing campaign offensively with its biggest struggle of the season. The Lions scored a season-low 10 points in their 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl, a game that bullet-pointed every way in which the offense labored.
Penn State totaled just 125 rushing yards, completed 43 percent of its passes and really went astray in the second half. Arkansas outgained Penn State 279-94, as the Lions tried desperately to play from behind.
Penn State's defensive issues Saturday were well-known, but the offense didn't have the same mitigating factors. Yes, team MVP Jahan Dotson didn't play, but the offense found some running success early and got strong play from receivers Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith.
In the end, Penn State produced its lowest-scoring output since the 42-7 loss to Michigan in 2018.
Plenty of questions, some answers, including that fake field-goal/punt fiasco. Let's get to a few.
What happened to Sean Clifford?
Penn State coach James Franklin said that "the medical staff" brought the starting quarterback out of the game in the fourth quarter. Franklin gave no further explanation. Clifford headed to the locker room with 8:30 remaining in the game. He was not available to the media afterward.
Clifford had a rough day, going 14 for 32 for 195 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Though Arkansas sacked him just once, its defense delivered a bunch of hits, causing Clifford to get up more slowly after each one.
"I thought he played gutsy," Franklin said. "I thought he battled. Obviously, he made some plays, but there's also some plays I know he would like to have back. I think there's some things that we can do to help him as well."
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman admired Clifford's game attitude as well.
"He's a competitive son of a gun," Pittman said.
Explaining the Fake
Franklin and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig have called some curious fakes this season. They tried another Saturday that didn't work. Franklin's explanation was even odder.
Kicker Jordan Stout looked like he would attempt a 54-yard field goal in the second quarter before dropping back into punt formation. Then he rolled out for a throw, didn't see one available and heaved the ball into the end zone.
Why? Here's what Franklin said. Notice the part about looking for pass interference.
"We didn't feel good about kicking it [from that distance]," Franklin said. "We had a fake in the game plan. Felt like in that situation we would either get a pass interference call or I was hoping they would catch the interception, which would have been as good as a punt."
Notably, Jake Pinegar replaced Stout as the primary field-goal kicker, going 1-for-2 in the game. That likely played a role in the fake as well.
A defense worn down
Franklin conceded that his defense, which played well in the first half while down six starters, labored in the second half. Particularly when Pittman decided to run right at it.
"Obviously, nobody wants to hear me say that, but was that a factor in the game? Yes," Franklin said. "Obviously we had a depth situation and we had a bunch of guys that played a bunch of football today that really hadn't played a bunch of football all year long.
"I wasn't going to bring it up, but it is a factor."
Added safety Ji'Ayir Brown, "Florida is hot. No, I don't think we started to run out of gas. We had a lot of execution errors. Maybe it was the heat, having guys not executing plays. We live in Pennsylvania; it ain't hot in PA right now. So it's a difference to come in here to Florida and play."
So why did Pittman wait so long to run the ball consistently?
"We were off. You have to give Penn State credit for that, but we were off," he said. "I thought we were sluggish, but then to come out and get the [second-half] kickoff and go bam, bam, bam, do what I call Arkansas style, that was pretty fun."
Esoterically, two fun Outback Bowl stats: Arkansas set the record for most rushing first downs (21). But Penn State also allowed the fewest passing first downs in bowl history (3).
Two defensive highlights
End Smith Vilbert and Brown made unexpected impacts for different reasons. Vilbert tied the Outback Bowl record with three sacks, all in the first half, in his breakout performance of the season.
In doing so, Vilbert also finished second on the team in sacks behind Arnold Ebiketie.
"He was just so locked in," linebacker Jesse Luketa said. "He knew it was his opportunity this week and he took to it, did everything he could."
Meanwhile, Brown did not practice all week because of an undisclosed injury but turned in a two-interception game. Franklin ultimately found some humor in that.
"[Brown] literally did not get cleared until Friday post-practice," Franklin said. "I'm not, as a coach, real happy about that, because I would imagine he's going to tell me he doesn't have to practice all next year."
The last word
Penn State began 5-0, won just two of its next seven games and finished 7-6. The season likely will be considered the most disappointing of Franklin's eight-year career at Penn State.
He acknowledged that.
"Obviously a pretty obvious question and answer," the coach said. "[The season was] not what we had hoped for. Obviously did some really good things early on, made some huge plays, had some big-time wins in tough environments on the road to start the season. We had some injuries that we weren't able to overcome quickly enough. But we're responsible for all of that. I get it. I get it.
"But overall I'm proud of the guys in that locker room not only as players. A lot of moving parts on the staff as well, which wasn't brought up. But that's part of college football now. I'm very, very appreciative of the guys in that locker room, players, coaches, staff, everybody else.
"But, yeah, I get it. It's a fair question. We started out 5-0, did some great things, weren't able to finish the season the way we wanted to. We've got some things to work on and we'll get it fixed."