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Outback Bowl Preview: Penn State May Need To Win On Offense

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A flurry of opt outs on defense leaves the Nittany Lions razor thin on the defensive side of the ball.

Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes the ball during the first quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In what has become an increasing phenomenon, Penn State will face the Arkansas Razorback without a number of starters, most of them on defense, as players have opted out of participating in the bowl game to get a head start in their NFL training.

While it’s never been forbidden, per se, it was not socially acceptable to not finish the season with your team, even after declaring for the draft, a few years ago, when Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette both opted out of their bowl games to tend to their injuries and get ready for the NFL draft. Fast forward to today, and it’s less about healing from an existing injury, and instead preventing one from happening altogether.

With the practice no longer being taboo, the Nittany Lions find themselves taking on the Razorbacks without five defensive players —linebackers Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, and safety Jaquan Brisker, and defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo. They’ll also lose one player on offense, Jahan Dotson, who was an obvious choice to go to the draft after the season he’s had.

On the other side, Arkansas lost one of its best receivers in recent memory, maybe ever, as Treylon Burks decided to opt out of the bowl They also lost defensive end Tre Williams. That seems to be the list of opt outs for the Razorbacks, at least officially. Thus, Penn State will face a near full strength team while themselves being razor thin on defense.

The Razorbacks finished the season 8-4, but have a similar profile to that of the Nittany Lions. They played close games with the top teams in its division (Alabama, Ole Miss), had one clunker against a team they should have beaten (Auburn), and beat a team they probably shouldn’t have (Texas A&M). The biggest difference comes in their game against Georgia, where they were shut out on their way to a 37-0 loss.

Likewise, Penn State lost close games to Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Iowa, beat Wisconsin, and lost in stunning fashion to Illinois, on their way to a 7-5 season that, as disappointing as it was in the moment, was still an improvement over the debacle that was 2020.

When Penn State is on offense...

While Arkansas allowed four yards per rush this season, Penn State has been unable to run the ball with any sort of consistency themselves. As they have in every game, they’ll try to run the ball, but ultimately it’ll be up to Sean Clifford and the Dotson-less suite of receivers to keep the Nittany Lions’ offense moving.

The Razorbacks allowed a 59.8 completion percentage against opposing quarterbacks this season, and 215 yards a game. Against Power 5 opponents, however, they allowed a more moderate 63.4 completion percentage for 240 yards. Even without Dotson, Penn State should be able to keep its passing game going against this defense.

When Penn State is on defense...

Arkansas is not unlike your prototypical Big Ten West team. They will run the ball, run it some more, and pass when they need to pass. In the regular season, the Razorbacks ran the ball 529 times and threw it 294 times, good for 64% of offensive snaps. This will likely be even more exaggerated now that Burks is off to get ready for the draft. With a mostly intact secondary, Penn State’s job will be to take away the run game and force Arkansas into passing situations. That will, of course, be easier said than done with four starters out of the lineup.

If the Nittany Lions are to actually do that, however, plenty of backups need to step up. If anything, this will be a game where James Franklin and the coaching staff will get to see what they have for next season.

Prediction

Bowl games are crazy affairs. Teams get a few weeks to rest, practice, and come up with game plans that are not usually viable during the season, when each week brings a different opponent to prepare for. With opt outs, the level of uncertainty ratchets up even more, as any player can choose to skip town and get ready for their NFL dreams. There’s also the issue of motivation, where one team may be ecstatic to be in the bowl game, while the other team might want the season to be over.

If you take all of that under account, it would be crazy to not pick Arkansas in this game. They haven’t been to a bowl game in five years, and only lost two players to Penn State’s six. I’m a crazy guy, however, so I’m going with the team I root for. Penn State 31, Arkansas 28.

Outback Bowl Basics:

Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Arkansas Razorbacks

January 1, 2022 | 11am CT | ESPN | Arkansas -2 | O/U 48
Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, FL)