Arkansas Rushing Attack Gashes Inexperienced Penn State Defense In Record-Setting Performance

Penn State football’s 2021 season is now officially in the books.

The Nittany Lions allowed Arkansas to score 17 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 24-10 defeat at the hands of the Razorbacks in the Outback Bowl.

One of the catalysts for Arkansas’ win was a dominant running game. The Hogs totaled 361 yards via the rush, which is the second-highest single-game total in Outback Bowl history. Averaging 6.2 yards per carry, Arkansas picked up an Outback Bowl-record 21 first downs on the ground.

Furthermore, Arkansas’ 361 rushing yards were the most Penn State allowed on the ground all season long.

It’s naive to think the struggles stopping the run had nothing to do with the five opt-outs on the defensive side of the ball. A handful of younger players stepped into prominent roles that they weren’t used to, which was of course a challenge as they continue to get more reps, as linebacker Curtis Jacobs explained.

“We just have to execute better in those situations,” Jacobs said. “So, that’s about getting home, getting ready for the play. Obviously, with the younger guys in, it’s not going to happen all the time. But, you got to keep working with them and keeping engraining them so that does happen for the future.”

While it wasn’t all pretty in the first half, the Nittany Lions were at least able to contain the Razorbacks’ powerful running game. James Franklin’s squad held Arkansas to 105 rushing yards in the first half, but it all fell apart in the second half in large part due to Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson’s rushing ability.

Franklin said he thought his team did a good job in the first half “limiting explosive runs,” but adjustments from Arkansas caused a switch in the latter 30 minutes.

“They committed to running the quarterback,” Franklin said after the game. “They went with zone read on the perimeter, then they went zone read inside where they were reading the linebacker. If he ran over the top with the running back, they pulled it and hit the quarterback inside. They committed to running the quarterback in the second half. That was obviously a major factor in the game.”

Jefferson posted 20 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown, with a majority of his runs coming on the zone read. He was able to break tackles at an impressive rate and kept the Nittany Lions off balance and guessing with the option runs.

Razorbacks head coach Sam Pittman saw his signal-caller really take off in the second half due to the adjustments the Hogs made and the rushing ability of Jefferson.

“The adjustment that we wanted to make was either run gap schemes back over this way, lead the tight end frontside, or run some type of inside zone where we’re not crossing the quarterback,” Pittman said.

“We did that, then they gave us the read,” he continued. “That’s when KJ started taking off. The read was there. So, we had two options off of those three plays with the read, which the read became very, very big for us.”

On the other side, it appears Penn State didn’t make many adjustments defensively. Jacobs explained after the game that they stuck to the same game plan throughout the game due to some of the inexperience that side of the ball had on the field.

“We pretty much stuck to the game plan,” Jacobs said. “We had a lot of guys that hadn’t been in the rotation throughout the year. So, we didn’t want to make it too complicated. So, we stuck to the game plan and stuck to what we knew and kept going.”

Pittman mentioned the other options Jefferson had on the zone read, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Jefferson was the main difference maker, but it wasn’t a one-man show. Running backs Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson combined for 24 carries worth 164 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Hogs three dangerous options on the ground throughout the course of the game.

Even backup quarterback Malik Hornsby got in on the action, as he ran the ball four times for 67 yards to round out the prolific rushing attack.

Arkansas’ run game created an upbeat tempo that kept Penn State’s defense on the field for long periods of times. The Razorbacks held the ball for 36:13, while Penn State was on offense for just 23:47. Franklin mentioned Arkansas’ fast tempo as one of the deciding factors in the game.

“Obviously nobody wants to hear me say that,” Franklin said. “But was [the tempo] a factor in the game? Yes. Obviously, we had a depth situation and we had a bunch of guys that played a bunch of football today that really hadn’t played a bunch of football all year long.”

Defensive end Nick Tarburton credited Arkansas’ scheme and game plan multiple times after the game. He said struggles with defending the zone read circle back to not holding the edge and stuff of that nature.

Like his head coach, Tarburton didn’t have much to complain about when it came to Penn State’s first-half defense. However, echoing what Franklin said, he said the zone read in the second half was the Nittany Lions’ kryptonite.

“We knew coming in they wanted to run the ball,” Tarburton said. “We had to stop it. I think we did a pretty good job in the first half stopping the run. Then, in the second half, they really opened up with the zone-read option and stuff like that. The zone read, that kind of hurt us.”

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

After a four-year career with Onward State, Gabe is now a college graduate and off to the real world. He shockingly served as the blog’s managing editor during the 2022-23 school year and covered football for much of his Onward State tenure, including trips to the Outback Bowl and Rose Bowl. For any professional inquiries, please email Gabe at [email protected]. You can still see his bad sports takes on Twitter at @gabeangieri.

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