Penn State’s Inflexible Game Plan Leads To Outback Bowl Demise

Penn State football only trailed at halftime three times during the 2021 season — by a combined 11 points. The Nittany Lions’ overall halftime margin was 141-82, but they lost six games.

James Franklin’s squad’s Outback Bowl defeat against Arkansas was its worst loss margin of the year. While the Razorbacks were able to make plenty of halftime adjustments, Penn State’s stagnant game plan lost it the second half and eventually the game.

“The biggest factor to me in the game that stood out in the second half was the quarterback running game,” Franklin said. “We did a really good job in the first half of limiting explosive runs, but in the second half they made an adjustment.”

The Hogs totaled an impressive 105 rushing yards in the first half but easily blew that away in the final two frames by adding 256 yards on the ground. Quarterback KJ Jefferson rushed for a sack-adjusted 134 yards en route to an Outback Bowl MVP award.

Arkansas threw the ball just five times in the second half. Franklin explained that the Razorbacks’ simple commitment to rushing with the quarterback changed the outcome of the game. This was even more effective against a relatively inexperienced Penn State linebacker corps that was missing two starters.

But, Penn State’s second-half struggles permeated both sides of the ball. The Nittany Lions were shut out in a half for just the third time this year and their yard-per-play number fell from 6.7 to 3.2 in the second half. Sean Clifford threw six straight incompletions and added an interception towards the end of the game.

Despite a 10-7 lead heading into the locker room, Penn State’s first-half performance wasn’t much to call home about. Keyvone Lee ran the ball well and Parker Washington put on a show, but they only scored one touchdown. What changes did they make? Well, not many.

“We didn’t really try to make adjustments at the wideout position,” KeAndre Lambert-Smith said. “We just knew we had to stick to the script.”

Sticking to the script didn’t work. The wideout added that Arkansas notably played less man coverage in the second half, and Penn State didn’t score a single point as a result. Balls were dropped, blocking schemes were blown up, and aggressive cover zero adjustments by Arkansas were hard to keep up with.

Lambert-Smith’s only net positive receptions were in the first half. Clifford finished with two interceptions and a 44% completion percentage before leaving the game with an injury.

Sam Pittman, the Razorbacks’ head coach, had a different philosophy heading into the break.

“I think a big part of coaching at halftime, the great ones get it done before — they try to talk and communicate,” Pittman said. “We had to make adjustments.”

And that’s exactly what the Hogs did, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They committed to running the ball up the middle and got tight ends involved more often in blocking schemes. It worked, and Arkansas boasted a 17-0 second-half score margin.

This is where Penn State’s inflexibility haunted it, especially on the defensive side of the ball. A lack of depth due to opt-outs made adjustments nearly impossible to make, and the Nittany Lions just couldn’t keep up.

“We pretty much stuck to the game plan [in the second half],” linebacker Curtis 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.”

A victim of circumstance, Penn State was basically forced to dumb down its defensive scheme so the younger and newer players could understand it. Combine that with an interim defensive coordinator, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Another factor in the second-half defensive struggles was attrition, James Franklin admitted after the game.

It was much hotter in Tampa than it’s been in State College, and the team hadn’t played a game in more than a month. Lots of players emphasized a “next man up” mentality after the game, as missing more than half of your defensive starters is obviously difficult.

To Penn State’s credit, plenty of younger guys stepped up and gave optimism for the future. Smith Vilbert and true freshman Jordan van den Berg showed they can be important pieces next year. But, the overall inexperienced showed as the game waned and Arkansas’ offense powered up.

“Was [attrition] 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,” Franklin said. “I wasn’t going to bring it up, but it is a factor.”

Heading into 2022, Penn State is suddenly a young team — especially on the defensive side of the ball. Leaders like Jesse Luketa and Jaquan Brisker are on to the NFL Draft, and plenty of position changes were needed to fill in the gaps in the Outback Bowl.

The young guys didn’t play poorly against Arkansas by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a Penn State fan, but at the end of the day, the Nittany Lions simply need to get better. But, a lack of concrete adjustments didn’t do James Franklin’s crew any favors.

Improvement will come with time, and there’s a whole offseason ahead for less experienced players to come into their own, which Lambert-Smith and Luketa both highlighted that after the game. Luketa won’t be wearing the blue and white anymore, but he said the future could be bright.

“We have to be better with our adjustments and whatnot, but that’s why I’m excited for the young guys,” he said.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected].

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