Five takeaways from Penn State's Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas
Penn State's 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl wasn't a complete indictment of its season, but it proved that some changes will need to be made next season.
James Franklin's Nittany Lions had a 10-7 lead at the half, despite not being able to find the end zone on the majority of their drives. Everything unraveled in the second half, with Arkansas quarterback K.J. Jefferson finishing with 20 carries for 110 rushing yards and a touchdown and backup quarterback Malik Hornsby gashing the Nittany Lions defense for four carries and 67 rushing yards. The Razorbacks finished with 353 yards on the ground and all three of their touchdowns coming on rushes.
Here are five takeaways from the Nittany Lions' Outback Bowl loss on Saturday.
Competitive freshmen should make things interesting in 2022: According to On3.com's recruiting database, Penn State has the seventh-ranked 2022 recruiting class in the nation.
Penn State is set to have a strong group of freshmen entering 2022 with defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton, defensive lineman Zane Durant, edge rusher Kenneth Talley, linebacker Keon Wylie and defensive lineman Kaleb Artis set to join the defense. The Nittany Lions also have receiver Kaden Saunders, Anthony Ivey, Omari Evans and Tyler Johnson, along with tight end Jerry Cross to round out their pass-catchers.
The crown jewels of the class are Sutton, five-star quarterback Drew Allar and five-star running back Nicholas Singleton. Each of the players have a chance to see the field in the first game next season.
Ji'Ayir Brown is on his way to becoming the next Penn State safety: Brown was a Lackawanna College transfer, following in the footsteps of fellow Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker. Like Brisker, Brown has been one of the best parts of the Nittany Lions defense in 2021. He entered Penn State's Outback Bowl matchup with Arkansas with four interceptions.
He went on to add two more interceptions to the tally.
Driving toward Penn State's end zone and on the 11-yard line, Arkansas' Jefferson rolled right and threw to wide receiver Warren Thompson. Brown flew in front of Thompson to pick off Jefferson with 9:34 left in the first quarter and kneeled the ball down for a touchback. Brown went on to pick off Thompson on a trick play with 28 seconds left in the second quarter at the Penn State 18-yard line for his second interception of the game.
Depth shouldn't be as big of an issue in Game 1 of next season: Penn State saw a number of players leave the field with injuries on Saturday with defensive tackle Dvon Ellies and linebacker Curtis Jacobs leaving the field. Ellies stepped up throughout the season after an injury to PJ Mustipher and rotated with Coziah Izzard and Fred Hansard.
The Nittany Lions saw seven of opt outs prior to the Outback Bowl, including defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, linebackers Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, as well as Brisker on defense and wide receiver Jahan Dotson on offense.
Jesse Luketa played both linebacker and defensive end during the season and played middle linebacker on Saturday. He announced after the game he will enter the 2022 NFL draft. Jacobs played the opposite outside linebacker role with safety Jonathan Sutherland sliding to Jacobs' usual outside spot. Nick Tarburton stepped up and made a number of plays at defensive end, including a tackle for loss that set Arkansas up for second and long in the third quarter.
Offensive line woes continue: It may have had something to do with the speed of Arkansas' defense, but Penn State's offensive line couldn't keep up with the Razorbacks. Arkansas' front seven consistently found themselves in the backfield to levy hits on quarterback Sean Clifford and a host of Penn State running backs.
It seemed that as soon as the ball was snapped on passing plays, Penn State's offensive line struggled and were pushed deep past Clifford. Luckily for the redshirt senior quarterback, he was able to find openings on passing plays to run because the Razorbacks over-pursued him, rushing for chunks of yards. However, that isn't a sustainable game plan when down 24-10 at the end of the third quarter.
While Clifford was only sacked once in the game, he didn't seem to get comfortable behind the line and it showed in his play on Saturday.
There needs to be a quarterback competition in 2022: While Clifford finished with arguably his best season in 2021 and is set to return for his fourth year as the starter, he should have to earn his spot back next season. It's no knock on his play, but the Nittany Lions have a chance to elevate their ceiling with Allar at the helm and current true freshman Christian Veilleux, who saw time in relief on Saturday against Arkansas.
Franklin wouldn't otherwise pull his starting quarterback in a situation where he's been playing well the entire season. Even with Clifford playing poorly against Illinois and clearly hobbled by his injury suffered two weeks prior against Iowa, Franklin continued to push him forward as the starter and not go to Ta'Quan Roberson or Veilleux.
Clifford went 14-for-32 (43.75%) with 195 yards, an early touchdown pass and two interceptions. His play prompeted Franklin to get Veilleux some time, which should alert all that their spots are not guaranteed on the team.