TAMPA, Fla. — Conventional wisdom and considerable evidence hold that bowl games — and in particular this one, the Outback, between Penn State and Arkansas — are often about intangibles, about greatly varying levels of motivation between opponents.
That didn’t seem to be the case at all here Saturday.
Penn State fought hard. The Nittany Lions appeared to play with emotion and focus and great effort. Their very tangible limitations were the reason for their 24-10 loss to the Razorbacks before a crowd of 46,577 at Raymond James Stadium.
“I thought our guys played extremely hard,’’ coach James Franklin said, not for the first time this season. “We did not play well enough, obviously, to win the game. Got to give Arkansas credit.’’
The story of this game week revolved around six NFL Draft-eligible Lions who chose not to play in the game, including star receiver Jahan Dotson and five defensive starters.
As a result, Franklin had to rely on a group of very inexperienced players, some of them stepping on to the big stage for the first time.
For a while, Penn State walked the tightrope, several of the unknowns performing capably and one of them, defensive end Smith Vilbert, doing far more than that.
Penn State led at halftime, 10-7. Vilbert, a third-year player who had been a basketball-only athlete until his senior year in high school, tied an Outback Bowl record with three quarterback sacks, all in the first half.
The offense had hit a couple of explosive pass plays, notably a 42-yard TD lob from Sean Clifford to a laughably wide-open KeAndre Smith-Lambert. It got a superb game from Dotson’s heir, sophomore Parker Washington, as a wideout (seven catches, 98 yards, one SportsCenter highlight) and punt returner.
It even did well enough on the ground, a glaring, season-long weakness, with 57 yards and 4.4 per carry.
The second half began with K.J. Jefferson, Arkansas’ big, athletic QB, rumbling straight ahead for 10 yards. Then again, for 10 more. Five plays later, all of them runs, four of them by Jefferson, the Razorbacks were in the end zone.
Upon a halftime’s reflection, Arkansas opted for brutal, decisive simplicity.
“They committed to running the quarterback,’’ Franklin said. “They went zone read on the perimeter. Then they went zone read inside.’’
Maybe Arkansas won the adjustment battle. Maybe they should have figured it out earlier.
The Razorbacks ran for 199 yards in the third quarter alone. 361 in the game. Jefferson ran for 110, 134 if you take away Penn State’s five sacks.
By the time that quarter was finished, so was Penn State.
“Obviously, nobody wants to hear me say (we ran out of gas),’’ Franklin said. “But was it a factor in the game? Yes. We had a depth situation. We had a bunch of guys that played a bunch of football today that really hadn’t all year long. I wasn’t going to bring it up, but it is a factor.’’
Penn State ran for 125 yards and 4.5 per carry. But it arguably could have committed more to it (just 28 attempts) and too many of the yards were by Clifford in frantic escape mode.
Penn State’s last hurrah came early in the fourth quarter, down 24-10, after Clifford had converted two scrambling first downs, when he threw a bad, hurried interception in the end zone.
Clifford left the game soon after that for good, at the behest, Franklin said, of the medical staff.
Penn State is 7-6. It lost six of its last eight. It can probably be said to have lost the battle of the line of scrimmage, the most elemental and indispensable part of winning football, in nine or 10 of the 13 games.
At least on paper, it’s hard to imagine next year’s roster being much better than this year’s.
“Overall,’’ Franklin said, “I’m very proud of the guys in that locker room, not only as players.’’
But he admitted that 2021 was, “Not what we had hoped for.
“We’re responsible for all of it. I get it.’’