3 things to know about Penn State vs. Arkansas Razorbacks in the Outback Bowl

·4 min read

Penn State landed the biggest bowl game possible — a bit stunning for a team that lost five of its last seven games.

The Nittany Lions will still play on New Year's Day. In an NFL stadium in Florida. And they'll match up against their second ranked SEC opponent of the season.

And they could be operating with a much different coaching look on the sideline. Even with a different lineup on the field.

Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin looks on from the sideline during the third quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin looks on from the sideline during the third quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The Outback Bowl coveted Penn State above other Big Ten teams with better records because of its huge traveling alumni base and great TV ratings. The Lions have brought four of the biggest crowds there over the years.

Where is the Outback Bowl?

The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and its York County head coach, Bruce Arians.

The Lions will work the bowl without longtime defensive coordinator Brent Pry and maybe even safeties coach Anthony Poindexter, now a head coach candidate, too. Could Pry take other staffers with him to Virginia Tech before the end of the month?

It's still unsure, as well, if any players would pass on playing in the bowl to get ready for the NFL. For now, the Lions are 2.5-point favorite, according to Tipico Sportsbook.

Here are three highlights of the match-up against the Arkansas Razorbacks:

Jahan Dotson vs. Treylon Burks: Will it happen?

Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) runs with the ball during the third quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) runs with the ball during the third quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the nation's top wideouts, and potential first-round NFL Draft choices in the spring, should be showcased.

But will they both play?

Star players continue to opt-out of bowl games to prepare for the draft, and protect themselves from injury. Penn State did not have this issue two years ago in the Cotton Bowl and did not play in the postseason last year.

Best PSU receiver ever?: Big Ten honors Penn State's Jahan Dotson, but is it enough?

But Dotson and Burks are that good, so the situation should be monitored. Dotson said he had not made a decision on playing in a bowl immediately after the regular-season finale at Michigan State.

Dotson proved unstoppable for opposing defenses this fall, particularly in the season's second half. He boasted a school-record day vs. Maryland and put together the best overall numbers in the Big Ten (91 catches, 1,182 yards, 12 TDs).

Arkansas' Burks is a bigger receiver (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and benefited from quarterback KJ Jefferson's mobility and ability to buy time for his receivers.

The match-up of the day may be Burks (66 catches, 1,104 yards, 11 TDs) going against Penn State's stellar cornerbacks Joey Porter, Jr. and Tariq Castro-Fields.

Can PSU defense regroup without its leader?

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson runs with the ball during the second half against Missouri.
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson runs with the ball during the second half against Missouri.

The Nittany Lions' highly regarded defense must play its best without its top coach.

And do so against arguably the most balanced offense it's seen all season.

The Lions' defense will be led by its assistants after losing coordinator Brent Pry last week to Virginia Tech.

How will that affect this group on all three layers?

Despite their overall prowess, the Lions lost their red zone magic in the snow at Michigan State, allowing the Spartans to cash in big each time they drove inside the 20. Some players have struggled down the stretch as well, Porter, Jr. with pass interference penalties y and linebacker Brandon Smith with open-field tackling.

They were stingy, overall, in giving up points but were gashed on the ground, at times.

The Razorbacks offer a unique challenge in Jefferson. He completed 67 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Even more, he's big (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) and fast and tough to bring down. He ran for 554 yards — one of four Razorbacks with more than 490 rushing yards this season.

The Lions didn't have to defend anyone like him in 2021.

PSU, Arkansas: What could have been?

Nov 27, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes the ball during the first quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium.
Nov 27, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes the ball during the first quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium.

Both teams were close to much more this season.

The Razorbacks are 8-4 but let two season-turning opportunities slip away.

The Lions lost their five games by a combined 21 points.

Arkansas probably would be in a New Year's Six bowl if it could have only cashed in on the final play vs. Mississippi on Oct. 9. They scored a touchdown with no time left but failed on the two-point conversion, losing 52-51.

They also took No. 1 Alabama to the wire in late November, losing by a touchdown in a back-and-forth game.

The Lions, meanwhile somehow lost in nine overtimes to Illinois. Then let Top 10 Michigan and Michigan State off the ropes late.

The difference?

The Razorbacks seemed to figure out their problems in the season's second half after losing three straight. They found ways to win close against LSU and Mississippi State. They blasted Missouri to end the season.

Penn State never found its footing. They struggled each week after Sean Clifford and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher were injured at Iowa, never again truly looking like the Top 10 team they were in the first half.

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Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Outback Bowl: 3 things to know about Penn State vs. Arkansas

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