TAMPA, Fla. — Penn State knew it was coming but couldn't stop it. Once Arkansas committed to its run game, particularly with quarterback KJ Jefferson, the Lions had no chance in the Outback Bowl.
Arkansas rushed for 361 yards, the most against Penn State this season, and averaged 6.2 per attempt in a 24-10 victory at Raymond James Stadium. Jefferson ran for 110 yards and the decisive touchdown to punctuate a dominant second half in which Arkansas outgained Penn State by nearly 200 yards.
That Penn State played without six defensive starters certainly meant limitations, but the offense mustered little outside of a 42-yard touchdown pass to Parker Washington on a busted coverage.
So after winning their first five games and reaching No. 4 in the AP Top 25, the Lions finished 7-6. With that, 11 observations from Raymond James Stadium?
1. Penn State's game but depleted defense hung with Arkansas for a half, assisted by an offensive strategy that hinged too often on the pass. Interim defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter used his personnel smartly and got some unexpected production. The Lions made five first-half sacks (three by end Smith Vilbert), and safety Ji'Ayir Brown added two interceptions. End Nick Tarburton even made his first sack of the season.
2. Then Arkansas ditched its first-half script and went to its wheelhouse: the run game. The Razorbacks, ranked second in the SEC in rushing this season, ran over Penn State's makeshift front seven in the third quarter: 17 carries, 176 yards and a first-down-per-attempt average.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson, who netted 6 rushing yards in the first half, rushed for 102 and a touchdown in the third quarter. That score essentially ended the game.
3. Not a good day for Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, who hoped to enter his sixth season with a bowl-game turbocharge. Instead, Clifford went 14 for 32 for 195 yards, finished with his lowest completion rate of the season (43.8 percent), threw two interceptions and missed one wide-open tight end for a touchdown.
Clifford also took a lot of punishment under third-down pressure and by running some odd option plays. There's plenty to correct this offseason.
4. Penn State waved the flag midway through the fourth quarter, inserting freshman quarterback Christian Veilleux on a series that began at its 9-yard line.
5. In addition to the five defensive opt-outs, Penn State was missing cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who was not in uniform. The Lions often played with just two or three regular starters on the field.
6. Vilbert finished the season second in sacks for Penn State with three, all of which he made in the Outback Bowl. All-Big Ten end Arnold Ebiketie led the team with 8.5
7. The first half ended with two coaches diving deep in their bowl-game book of tricks. Franklin and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig (soon bound for Oregon?) called a trick play by showing a field-goal formation, switching to a spread punt alignment and motioning Jordan Stout to throw.
But the Big Ten punter of the year looked flummoxed on 4th and 13. He briefly had tight end Tyler Warren open but froze and unwisely heaved the ball into the end zone for an incompletion.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, however, raised Franklin by running a halfback option pass, at which Penn State safety Ji'Ayir Brown didn't blink. Brown's second interception of the half sent the Lions into the break ahead 10-7.
8. Clifford had two throws at wide-open players for touchdowns in the first half. He hit Parker Washington for 42 yards but missed tight end Theo Johnson alone in the end zone. That was the first in a rough sequence of plays that ended with Stout's incompletion.
9. Arkansas' first touchdown benefitted from a missed call. On 4th and 2, the Razorbacks' backfield motion went unnoticed, leading to a conversion. While Penn State argued for a false start and tried to align quickly. Arkansas' Raheim rushed for a 3-yard score.
10. Penn State did not have a 100-yard rusher this season for the first time since 1978.
11. Jake Pinegar took over kicking duties from Stout for the first time this season. He also made his first field goal, a 43-yarder, since the Michigan State game in 2020.