It was a lackluster showing by the Nittany Lions in Tampa on Saturday afternoon. Penn State started 2022 with a loss to Arkansas in the 2022 Outback Bowl, 10-24. The Razorbacks scored seven in the first quarter, none in the second, but went on a 17-0 run in the second half. The young Penn State team showed flashes of a bright future, but couldn’t overcome the Arkansas offense.
2022 Outback Bowl: Penn State Struggled
It was a tale of two seasons for Penn State in 2021. A team that started the season 5-0, ended 7-6. In the preview we stated that Penn State would have to get the tight ends involved, use quick, short passes, and not abandon the run game. Sean Clifford ended the game as the leading rusher, despite good bursts by both Keyvone Lee and Noah Cain. Lee had only four carries for 35 yards, but averaged just under nine yards per carry. Cain averaged just under six yards per carry. The Arkansas defense held Penn State to 125 rushing yards. Wide receiver Parker Washington looks poised to take over the leading receiver role and the wide receiver position as a whole looks steady moving into 2022. Washington ended the game with seven receptions for 98 yards. However, the offensive line still needs work and Clifford needs to regain confidence.
Penn State Defense: A Glimpse at Young Talent for Manny Diaz
It was a tall order for the Penn State defense that was solid all year. It was without six starters on Saturday. Five due to opt outs and Tariq Castro-Fields was not suited up for the game, despite being on the sidelines. Jesse Luketa and Curtis Jacobs did everything they could at linebacker and led the team in tackles, but didn’t have much help. Jonathan Sutherland, despite the effort, just couldn’t keep up and the others were not ready for the talented Razorbacks. Luketa announced after the game that he will declare for the NFL Draft. Leaving Jacobs as the only linebacker with real game experience to play next season. He had a good game in the Outback Bowl, finishing with 10 total tackles, one sack, and one tackle for loss. The lack of playmakers in the middle showed as Arkansas rushed for 353 yards on Saturday. Razorbacks quarterback, KJ Jefferson, led the pack with 20 carries for 110 yards. The Nittany Lions didn’t have any answer for him or Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson. Sanders finished the day with two touchdowns and Johnson rushed for 77 yards for seven yards per carry.
A Few Strengths Crept Through
Where the Penn State defense did well though was in the secondary and glimpses on the defensive line. Even without Castro-Fields and Jaquan Brisker, Ji’Ayir Brown and company played well for the most part, holding the Razorbacks to 98 passing yards. Brown stepped away on Saturday with two interceptions. Both stopped scoring drives by the Razorbacks. Brown led Penn State in interceptions this season with four, before adding two more in the 2022 Outback Bowl. The first was in the end zone and the second came just before half when Arkansas was in field goal range. Penn State fans will be glad to hear Brown is returning next season.
Everyone knew it was going to be tough for the defensive line without any starters from the 2021 season, but the young line played decently well. It obviously struggled against the run and couldn’t contain the rushing threat of Jefferson, but Smith Vilbert walked away with three sacks on the day. Overall, new defensive coordinator Diaz got to see what he has to work with for next season and what he needs to supplement this spring/summer.
Looking Ahead to Next Season
Penn State fans will be frustrated after this loss and the 7-6 finish on a season that once had a lot of potential, however, they need to look to the 2022 season. There is a talented group of players coming in and some young guys showed promise throughout 2021 and flashes on Saturday.
What are the strengths entering 2022? The wide receivers continue to shine and the secondary with Brown looks to be in good hands. The weak spots that need fixed? The run game needs to be better in 2022. Penn State must get back to its roots and have a run game to wind down the clock and get tough yardage, especially in the red zone. Linebacker will also need to be addressed in the offseason. Overall, it wasn’t the ending to the season that everyone wanted, but there were flashes of what’s to come.