Outback Bowl: Hogs vs. Penn St. preview
FAYETTEVILLE - Saturday’s Outback Bowl looks vastly different than when the matchup was announced Dec. 5.
Arkansas (8-4) of the SEC and the Big Ten’s Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5) battle at 11 a.m. Jan. 1 on ESPN2 from Tampa, Fla.
Treylon Burks, the Razorbacks’ first-team All-SEC receiver and best player, opted out of the game to stay healthy for his projected first-round choice NFL draft.
Defensive end Tre Williams, Arkansas’ best pass rusher, also opted to prepare for the draft.
Meanwhile, Penn State has lost six starters declaring turning pro early and opting out of the bowl. Jahan Dotson, Penn State’s best receiver, and starting linebackers Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks, defensive end Arnold Ebikete, defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo and safety Jaquan Brisker have opted out.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and Penn State coach James Franklin spoke at the Outback Bowl press conference.
“If we played in the regular season, the teams would be different,” Pittman said. “They’re just different because we’ve had a couple leaving for the NFL. He (Franklin) has had several over there at Penn State. The teams are different. That’s just what it is.”
“We’ve (to this extent throughout bowl games) have never seen this in college football,” Franklin said. “It happened a little bit last year. We thought we were done with it, but it’s happening again this year. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a head coach for 12 years and never had an opt out (until his five now). They (Arkansas) have had a little of it. We’ve had more. It’s challenging.”
Certainly, knowing their culpability in changing jobs even as their teams play in bowls, coaches can’t knock players turning pro after helping their teams get to the bowls.
And bowl games are more diminished by the four-team college football playoffs.
So, say goodbye and good luck to those parting and put everything into the players you have.
“I’m focused on the guys in our locker room,” Franklin said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not happy and supportive of the guys who are not. But I’m excited about the guys that are going to have bigger roles.”
For timing, the Hogs knew after the regular season’s end Burks’ decision and adjusted personnel accordingly.
Williams’ decision became obvious as a recent DWI charge likely would have suspended the grad transfer from his last game, anyway.
Penn State linebackers Smith and Brooks and defensive end Ebikete declared right after the regular season, but Brisker, Dotson and Tangelo didn’t officially withdraw until after the Nittany Lions arrived in Tampa.
Regardless of who moves on, the show, barring an always feared covid outbreak, goes on.
“Once you wrap your mind around that teams are different,” Pittman said, “you’re going to field a different football team. You’re probably going to find surprises both ways from who’s out there.”
Penn State’s defensive tradition is such that “Next,” generally applies to a defensive backup stepping up without drop-off to replace a starter gone down.
Offensively, losing Dotson and his 91 catches for 1,182 yards and 12 TDs, makes a huge difference to Penn State’s game plan.
Both teams sport capable alternate wide receivers and big-time tight ends and running backs by committee.
Most importantly both still have the quarterbacks, Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson and Penn State’s Sean Clifford have led all year behind the same lines blocking for them all year.
Jefferson (6-2, 245) is Arkansas’ second-leading rusher with 126 carries for 554 yards and five TDs. He has completed 184 of 275 passes for 2,578 yards and 21 TDs with just three interceptions. One of those picks was a half-ending Hail Mary.
Clifford has completed 247 of 396 for 2,912 yards and 20 TDs vs. six picks.
“I think it starts with their quarterback,” Franklin said of Jefferson. “Big, physical mature guy. To me, it starts and ends with their running game, and they do enough of the other things to keep you honest. The play-action passes and RPOs and all of that can be challenging.”
Pittman sees Penn State senior Clifford as the captain who can steady the ship minus Dotson
“Well I love their quarterback Clifford,” Pittman said. “He’s the leader.”
Grant Morgan, Arkansas’ bonus senior linebacker playing his UA finale as the Brandon Burlsworth Award winner, knows a winner when he sees one.
“Sean Clifford makes plays,” Morgan said. “He’s a good quarterback and knows how to make the play continue a little bit longer or he can just put it in a spot where his receivers can go get it. Their receivers are really good. (Parker) Washington (now Penn State’ leading receiver with 57 catches for 722 yards) is probably going to step up and have a good game. They have really good athletes.”
The Hogs feel they do, too, with receivers Tyson Morris, De’Vion Warren, Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson and tight ends Blake Kern, Hudson Henry, and Trey Knox among those counted upon to emerge in Burks’ absence.