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Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14). (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)
December 31st, 2021
Penn State will look to end its season on a high note when the Nittany Lions square off with the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday in the Outback Bowl.
Let's examine this matchup, beginning with the latest betting odds.
The defense that the Nittany Lions will take the field with on Saturday will look vastly different to the one they had this season. Not only will they be without defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who has taken the head coaching job at Virginia Tech, but five starters have opted out of the bowl game as well.
Safety Jaquan Brisker, one of the best defensive backs in the country, will not be playing, nor will linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith. They also will be without starting tackle Derrick Tangelo, their best run stopper, and end Arnold Ebiketie, who led the Big Ten in tackles for loss and had 12 of their 22 sacks this season. These are massive blows to a defense that allowed fewer than 17 points per game and led the Big Ten in red zone defense, with opposing offenses having just a 66.7 percent success rate.
All-Big Ten edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie, who leads the conference in TFLs, became Penn State’s fourth defensive starter to opt out of the Outback Bowl.https://t.co/kTIx6J1HfP— Mark Wogenrich (@MarkWogenrich) December 29, 2021
All-Big Ten edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie, who leads the conference in TFLs, became Penn State’s fourth defensive starter to opt out of the Outback Bowl.https://t.co/kTIx6J1HfP
To make matters worse, the offense will have to find a way to replace star wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught 91 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns. Their star receiver was a key part of the team, catching half of the touchdown passes thrown by Penn State quarterbacks in 2021. Parker Washington, the team’s second-leading receiver, will now become the primary target for Sean Clifford, who was inconsistent at times this season, especially as the Nittany Lions lost five of their last seven games, including four by four points or less.
The lack of a run game will be a huge issue as well for Penn State, as they did not have a single 100-yard rusher this season and ranked second-worst in the conference at just 3.1 yards per carry with 11 rushing scores. This puts more pressure on Clifford and the offensive line, which will be without starting left tackle Rasheed Walker due to injury.
After a mid-season three-game losing streak, the Razorbacks finished strong with four wins in their final five games. Their lone defeat was in a 42-35 game against Alabama, in which they gave the Crimson Tide all they could handle.
The offense is led by quarterback KJ Jefferson, a 6’3”, 245-pound beast who threw 21 touchdowns to just three interceptions this season. He is a powerful runner who gained 554 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, completed better than two-thirds of his passes, and has an outstanding deep ball.
KJ JEFFERSON WITH THE DIME@razorbackFB is off and running 🔥 pic.twitter.com/gUWIIcTxom— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 25, 2021
KJ JEFFERSON WITH THE DIME@razorbackFB is off and running 🔥 pic.twitter.com/gUWIIcTxom
Jefferson will be without his start playmaker, however, as Arkansas also got hit by a pair of opt-outs. The Hogs will enter the game without wide receiver Treylon Burks, who caught 66 passes for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns. He caught more passes than the next three players on the team combined, and had half the team’s touchdown receptions.
Thankfully, Arkansas has three receivers with double-digit catches who racked up at least 14.5 yards per catch this season, and will be the beneficiaries of play-action building off their powerful run game. Led by Jefferson and running back Dominique Johnson, a powerful back who averaged nearly six yards per carry, the Razorbacks have four different players who gained at least 498 yards on the ground this season. Arkansas must avoid penalties, as they were one of the most penalized teams in the nation this season. If they do so, they are a juggernaut in the red zone, converting on over 91% of their chances, second-best in the SEC.
Their defense is solid, but will be without defensive end Tre Williams, who was their best pass rusher this season. They have issues at times against the run, but their pass defense ranks 34th in the nation, and they hauled in 11 interceptions this season.
Penn State is simply missing too many pieces in this game. With a new coach calling the plays on defense, they will have players in new positions and new players trying to replace 61% of their sacks, more than half of their tackles for loss, and over 40% of their total tackles for the season. In addition, their left tackle will be a redshirt freshman will be making his first ever start.
Arkansas will miss Burks and Williams, but they have plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball to make up for it. Additionally, Jefferson is the kind of quarterback who can cause problems for any defense, especially one that struggles to get pressure on the QB. Arkansas should be able to run the ball enough to open things up downfield, and Jefferson has the ability to hurt Penn State deep.
I like Jefferson to lead the Razorbacks to victory. Take Arkansas to cover the spread, and pair it with the Hogs covering their team total as well for a Same Game Combo wager.
Score prediction: Arkansas 30, Penn State 24
Our predictive engine is calling for Arkansas to win outright.
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