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Penn State’s Post-Outback Bowl Report Card

Well, that’ll do it for Penn State football’s 2021-22 season.

The Nittany Lions now finish with a 7-6 mark on the year thanks to Saturday’s ugly 24-10 loss to No. 21 Arkansas in the Outback Bowl. Despite taking a 10-7 lead into halftime, James Franklin’s group collapsed in the second half and allowed a dominant performance for the Razorbacks’ rushing attack. Sam Pittman’s offense threw the ball just five times in the final two quarters as it ran the ball at will.

Sean Clifford and the Penn State offense didn’t do much to help the team’s cause, either. With all of those struggles in mind, let’s grade the Nittany Lions’ performance in the final game of the season.

Quarterbacks: C-

It wasn’t a great finish to Sean Clifford’s penultimate season in Happy Valley. The quarterback threw two interceptions on the day, including one that came on a corner fade route when the Nittany Lions were set up deep in the red zone.

The redshirt senior hit on just 14 of his 32 pass attempts, and besides a couple of dimes to Parker Washington and a wide-open connection to KeAndre Lambert-Smith for Penn State’s only touchdown, there wasn’t much to write home about for Clifford. Inaccuracies were clearly an issue throughout the day, which were highlighted by a brutal miss to Theo Johnson in the red zone — who was set up to walk into the end zone had Clifford hit him.

Of all his struggles through the air, Clifford managed a couple successful runs on scrambles. He led the way for Penn State with 11 carries worth 47 yards, but also took a couple of big hits. The quarterback was eventually forced to leave the game by the medical staff down the stretch, so Christian Veilleux came in for the final possession. The freshman completed just one pass worth three yards in his time played.

Running Backs: C-

Penn State’s running backs quite literally didn’t get enough opportunity against the Razorbacks. The group totaled 11 carries — the same amount that Clifford got — split among Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, and Devyn Ford. Lee finished his day with five carries, and despite rushing for a 26-yard gain in the second quarter, got just one more touch from there.

Cain matched Lee’s five carries and managed a 16-yard rush, but finished with just 28 yards on the day. Devyn Ford’s one carry for four yards helped the back’s yardage total to a pedestrian 73, as the group was essentially a non-factor against the Hogs.

Wide Receivers: B

All things considered, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith played fairly well as they did their best to step into Jahan Dotson’s shoes. Lambert-Smith burst free for Penn State’s only score of the day and finished his afternoon with 74 yards receiving, while Washington paced the Nittany Lions with seven catches for 98 yards.

The Sugar Land, Texas native was a consistent target for Sean Clifford, as he opened the day with a 42-yard grab. Washington’s biggest play of the day was a nasty one-handed reception that kept the chains moving for the Nittany Lions.

Washington only had one catch worth more than 10 yards in the second half, but he was certainly Penn State’s top option in an otherwise ugly day for the offense.

That top pair were the only pass-catchers for the wideouts, as Malick Meiga and Cam Sullivan-Brown failed to grab any of their targets.

Tight Ends: C-

Penn State’s tight ends didn’t live up to the towering expectations James Franklin set for them entering the year, so Saturday’s performance was a fitting finish.

Tyler Warren had one catch on a screen pass that didn’t gain any yards, while Brenton Strange made one grab that lost a yard. Considering the struggles Penn State once again saw in the run game, there’s not many positives that can be said about the group’s blocking, either.

Theo Johnson certainly would’ve had a touchdown had Sean Clifford not missed him on a seam route, but it was a quiet performance to finish the season for Ty Howle’s group.

Offensive Line: C

Sean Clifford wasn’t comfortable in the pocket all afternoon. While part of that blame can be on the quarterback himself, the offensive line certainly struggled to give him enough time on a consistent basis. The veteran quarterback was sacked just once on the day, but the Razorbacks did force four tackles for loss.

It’s difficult to assess the run-blocking since the team largely abandoned that part of its game. The group deserves credit for creating holes that led to a couple of big runs, but that’s not enough to call it an impressive day for the big fellas up front.

Defensive Line: B-

John Scott Jr.’s group was gashed for a season-worst 361 rushing yards, which cannot be ignored. However, a couple of young stars had solid performances up front.

For starters, redshirt sophomore Smith Vilbert tied an Outback Bowl record with three sacks on the day. He also had one other tackle at the defensive end spot, and showcased his pure athleticism within his 6’6″, 263-pound frame. Along with Vilbert’s big day, Nick Tarburton had seven total tackles and a sack, while freshman Jordan van den Berg made five tackles — including one for a loss.

While it was exciting to see some young talent step up for Anthony Poindexter’s bowl-game defense, the rush defense was truly abysmal at times. KJ Jefferson rolled his way to a team-high 110 yards, while running backs Dominique Johnson and Raheim Sanders and even back-up quarterback Malik Hornsby got in on the action.

Linebackers: C+

Curtis Jacobs and Jesse Luketa were Penn State’s statistical leaders on the day, but again, plenty of the blame goes to the linebackers in struggling to stop Arkansas’ rushers.

Once Jefferson broke into the second level, missed tackles were definitely an issue for the group. Jonathan Sutherland is clearly not fully comfortable in his new Sam position, as well, while Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks were sorely missed all day.

Jacobs had 10 tackles while Luketa was just behind him with nine, but those strong performances are overshadowed by the offensive success Arkansas saw.

Secondary: A-

The Razorbacks attempted just 20 passes on the day and totaled 90 yards through the day, so Penn State’s defensive backs weren’t really tested in the Outback Bowl. However, when the group was forced to make a play, Ji’Ayir Brown was always the one who came up big.

The safety stepped up big time in Jaquan Brisker’s absence, as he grabbed two interceptions. Brown’s first pick came early in the contest as Arkansas was threatening to score. He jumped a lob pass in the end zone and got the ball back to Penn State’s offense with ease.

Brown made one more interception on a trick play right before half time, while Keaton Ellis made six total tackles opposite to him. Kalen King, Joey Porter Jr., and Johnny Dixon kept Arkansas’ wide receivers quiet in a day that was dominated by running backs.

Special Teams: C-

Yikes. What a weird day for Penn State’s special teams.

Things got off on a horrendous note when the Nittany Lions elected to send Jake Pinegar out for a 50-yard field goal attempt. Pinegar was thought to be Penn State’s short-range field goal kicker last season, and hadn’t even seen much of the field in 2021. The senior from Iowa looked a little rusty in Tampa, as he missed the long attempt extremely wide to the right.

Soon after that, Penn State ran a ridiculous fake punt attempt that included a broken tackle and a 50-yard pass for Jordan Stout that wasn’t anywhere near a Nittany Lion. The play design was ugly, to say the very least, and didn’t inspire any confidence for the group entering halftime.

Stout finished his day with five total punt attempts and a sub-par 39.4-yard average. He knocked Arkansas inside its own 20-yard line on one occasion, but overall, the day was below the standards he’s set this season. Pinegar managed to bounce back by hitting a 43-yard field goal, but it was hardly a banner day for Joe Lorig’s group.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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