Gameday Observations: Arkansas In Outback Bowl

Penn State football’s disappointing season has come to a close.

A dud of an Outback Bowl performance has plenty of Nittany Lions fans looking ahead to 2022, but it wasn’t all bad down in Tampa this week. Between beautiful weather, senior send-offs, and celebrity appearances, we had a few takeaways from Penn State’s trip down to Florida.

Outback Bowl Is Beyond Hospitable

The biggest takeaway from our trip to Tampa was that the folks over at the Outback Bowl know how to run a goddamn bowl game. Between an open bar in the media hotel, quick transcripts, friendly faces, shuttles, and much more, every employee was a pleasure to work with. It’s no wonder this bowl has the longest sponsor streak of any other in college football.

Oh, and by the way, Raymond James Stadium was a pleasure — pirate ship and all. The media spread included steak, mashed potatoes, salad, and ziti, and they hooked us up with brisket, corn, peach cobbler, and more after the game while we were writing out stories. Just a first-class experience all around.

Tampa Is Cool, But Getting To Clearwater Beach Is Impossible

As someone who generally didn’t like Florida heading into this trip, I was actually pretty impressed by Tampa. A lot of the architecture was cool and we ate at some delicious restaurants downtown — including a Mexican joint with killer margaritas and chips called Urban Cantina.

But, getting to the main beaches from Tampa is basically impossible. The team had an event down in Clearwater after Thursday’s practice, but a 30-45 minute drive turned into a 90-minute trek with the holiday traffic. Luckily, we received a heads-up from our colleague Audrey Snyder about the roads and decided to forgo the trip altogether.

Our move was to head down to St. Pete instead, and we hit the jackpot. Less traffic, beautiful weather, and a sweet beachside bar/food shack made for a great trip. It’s no State College, but it’s pretty nice!

Future Stars Inspire Some Optimism

With all the opt-outs and injuries affecting Penn State’s defense, plenty of younger guys were forced to step up to the plate. Next year’s crew will be led by guys like Curtis Jacobs and Ji’Ayir Brown, but there are lots of other moving pieces — especially at the linebacker position.

Smith Vilbert stole the show on this front, adding three sacks in the first half alone at defensive end. True freshman Jordan van den Berg also showed out with five tackles and a tackle for loss. Veteran Jonathan Sutherland filled in at linebacker, but it’s hard to say if he’ll beat out younger guys like Jamari Buddin, Kobe King, and Tyler Elsdon at that spot.

On the offensive side of the ball, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith showed they might have what it takes to fill in for Jahan Dotson. Washington’s one-handed grab was the highlight of the entire game for the Nittany Lions.

John Daly Makes An Appearance

Arkansas alum and legendary golfer John Daly was in attendance for the 2022 version of the Outback Bowl. He was taking selfies with fans postgame and even kicked a football while barefoot on the sideline. Grit.

One Last Ride For Jesse Luketa

While Penn State was missing numerous defensive starters due to opt-outs, Jesse Luketa was one of the few guys — if not the only one — to see the season through. He finished with nine tackles and a tackle for loss before declaring for the draft shortly after the game.

Sean Clifford Criticised On Social Media

The Outback Bowl wasn’t Sean Clifford’s best game of the year by any stretch of the imagination. The three-year starter completed just 44% of his 32 passes for 195 yards and 1 touchdown. He also threw two interceptions and left the game late with an injury.

Clifford showed lots of heart behind a pedestrian offensive line and battled through plenty of hard hits. But, he did the Nittany Lions no favor on New Year’s Day and caught plenty of heat on social media — including from letterman Stephon Morris.

With highly touted true freshmen quarterbacks Drew Allar and Beau Pribula coming in during the offseason, lots of folks lamented Clifford’s decision to come back another year. However, it would be hard to replace his veteran leadership should he have declared for the draft.

Special Teams Was A Small Mess

Between a crazy fake punt and hilariously bad field goal miss, Penn State’s special teams did not have its best performance against Arkansas.

Jake Pinegar was given field goal duties for the first time all season (James Franklin said after the game he was the kicker against Michigan State, but he actually only came in to relieve Jordan Stout after a few misses in the snow) and he went 1-for-2. If Stout declares for the draft, it’s hard to have full confidence in Pinegar after basically being benched this entire season.

And for the fake punt? No comment. Well, one comment: Stout has a great arm.

Outback Bowl Is Anticlimactic End To Wildly Frustrating Season

After the game, the vibe amongst the players was weird. Guys really didn’t seem upset about the loss and really seemed focused on moving on to next year. With how shorthanded Penn State was, it really didn’t seem like many folks were excited for or cared about this game. Arkansas dominated the fan distribution in the stadium and many Nittany Lions fans bounced early.

The dichotomy between the number of guys heading for the draft and how bad Penn State’s record was is interesting. The defense boasted plenty of NFL prospects, but the offense struggled to keep up all year. It was the more of the same of this in the Outback Bowl, and emotion seemed to be running low. A dry, anticlimactic bowl game was just about the perfect ending to a disappointing and frustrating season.

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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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