Razorbacks seeking 9th victory against Penn St. in Outback Bowl

Day 1 of Outback Bowl practice in Tampa, Fla. / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

How big is Saturday’s Outback Bowl for the No. 24 Arkansas Razorbacks?

It’s a huge game for a program that continues to dig itself out of a decade of mediocrity or worse.

When you consider no current Razorback — including some fifth- and sixth-year Covid-19 super seniors — has ever played in a bowl game at Arkansas, the game is monumental.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Penn State (Outback Bowl)
When: 11 a.m. Jan. 1
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

The Razorbacks played in three bowl games during Bret Bielema’s five-year tenure as head coach from 2013-2017, but all were lesser bowls.

The Hogs (8-4) have not competed in a New Year’s Day bowl since defeating Kansas State, 29-16, in the Cotton Bowl in 2011, a decade ago.

That was before all of the current Hogs had reached teen-age status. That next spring then head coach Bobby Petrino took that fateful motorcycle ride that not only grounded his bike in the ditch but also the Razorback program.

The Razorbacks were selected to play in the Texas Bowl after last year’s 3-7 season when the victory requirement for bowl eligibility was suspended because of the pandemic, but just as the Hogs were boarding the bus to go to the airport to fly to Houston, TCU backed out of the game because of the virus.

Linebacker and team captain Grant Morgan, one of those super-seniors, called this game his national championship earlier in the week because the Outback Bowl matchup with Penn State is the closest he’ll ever get to playing in a title game in his college career.

It would seem his fellow Razorbacks have similar thoughts about the showdown with Penn State (7-5) at 11 a.m. Saturday morning on ESPN2, which will be the first football game of the new year.

Quarterback and fellow captain K.J Jefferson expressed his excitement as well for the opportunity his Razorbacks have in playing such an historic program as Penn State for the first time in Razorback history.

“It really is special,” Jefferson said. “One thing was to get out of the cold in Arkansas. The weather has been good, and the environment and the people here and the hotel. I’m just soaking up everything and taking pictures of everything. It’s been fun.

“We just want to finish the season strong against a great team like Penn State. We’ve had adversity and we want to end it on a good note and win the Outback Bowl trophy and bring it back to the state of Arkansas.”

Jefferson has progressed greatly under the watchful eye of Arkansas offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Kendal Briles. The 6-3, 245-pound sophomore completed 184 of 275 passes for 2,578 yards, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has rushed 126 times for 554 yards and five touchdowns.

Day 1 of Outback Bowl practice in Tampa, Fla. / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Jefferson has struggled with a nagging knee injury since the Texas A&M victory in late September, but time off since the regular-season finale victory over Missouri has him feeling strong going into Saturday’s game.

“Me, I’ve been battling with my knee all season now,” Jefferson said. “But the break we got before we came here, I felt pretty good relaxing and not putting too much stress on it. I’m still getting treatment and making sure my body is 100 percent healthy.”
Jefferson said he and the Hogs want to bring home a victory for the coach Sam Pittman, the fans, and themselves.

“Extremely motivated,” Jefferson said. “Like [Grant Morgan] said, we haven’t been to a bowl game since 2016. It’s our national championship. Treat each and every day like we’re going to go out and practice hard and have high intensity. Our objective is to win.”

If the Hogs are to win, they will do it without two of their best players in All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks and starting defensive end Tre Smith, who decided not to play in the bowl game under different circumstances.

Burks opted out as a precaution before he turns pro. He suffered through a number of nagging injuries all season. He is using the time between now and the NFL Combine to heal and train for an excellent showing at the talent showcase.

Williams opted out of the game after a DUI arrest that would have left him suspended for the bowl game by Pittman if he had not decided to leave the team before what would have been his final college game.

Jefferson said Burks being out opens the door of opportunity for other Hog receivers.

“Bryce Stephens and Jaedon Wilson among our young receivers have stepped up pretty big time,” Jefferson said. “Just young guys maturing and getting reps. They’ve scrimmaged and been blocking and catching balls. They might come up to me and ask what are you looking at from this standpoint on plays and stuff like that. They are taking advantage of their opportunities right now.”

Day 1 of Outback Bowl practice in Tampa, Fla. / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Penn State coach James Franklin is dealing with more opt outs than Pittman. The Nittany Lions have taken hits across the board on defense with tackle Derrick Tangelo, end Arnold Ebiketie, linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith, and safety Jaquan Brisker sitting out in anticipation of the NF Draft.

The Nittany Lions will also be without all-conference wide receiver Jahan Dotson. Penn State left offensive tackle Rasheed Walker also was spotted on crutches on Christmas Day by reporters when his squad arrived in Tampa.

“We’ve never seen people not playing [bowl games],” Franklin said of the opt outs and bowl cancelations because of Covid-19. “It happened a little bit last year. We thought we were done with it. It’s happening again this year. For us, we want to play. We want to represent the Outback Bowl the right way. We want to represent Penn State the right way.”

Pittman said he admired Franklin and Penn State for not trying to pull out of the game because of the large number of opt outs the squad faced.

“I think it says a lot about Penn State and Coach Franklin,” Pittman said. “He’s had several [opt outs] over there at Penn State. The teams are different. I mean that’s just what it is. But we have 120 on our team. The other 115 or 110 that are left right now, they deserve the opportunity to play. I don’t think either one of us … are looking for a way out. We’re looking for a way in. I think that’s what coach did. I know that’s what we did as well.”

Historically the Razorbacks aren’t a great bowl team with a 15-24-3 record, but those games really have nothing to do with Saturday’s game.

If you look at the two squad’s seasons, Arkansas’ was characterized by close wins, while Penn State’s was characterized by close losses.

Day 1 of Outback Bowl practice in Tampa, Fla. / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Nittany Lions lost five of their last seven games in close affairs. The Hogs on the other hand gutted out tough wins over LSU and Mississippi State as well as whipping Missouri and Pine Bluff to win four of their last five. The lone loss was a 42-35 decision at Alabama.

Without Burks, it will be interesting to see how well the Razorbacks’ offense functions and how well Jefferson plays when his go-to guy isn’t on the field.

Penn State never found a way to get over the hump in the back half of their season. Could there be addition by subtraction with all of the Nittany Lions’ opt outs?

Before word leaked of all of Penn State’s opt outs, the Nittany Lions were a three- to four-point favorite. The betting line has shifted since. Now Arkansas is a one-point favorite.

The game seems too close to call.

The Razorbacks seem to have more at stake. A victory would give the program nine wins for the first time in a decade and would likely leave them ranked in the Top 20 also for the first time in a decade.

It would seem Arkansas has more to play for, including the program’s first win over an historic squad like Penn State.

However with so much uncertainty on both sides of the ball, I think this is a pick ‘em game.

Should the Hogs win, though, the Razorbacks, their coaches, and fans would have a ton to be proud of this season, and a lot of momentum heading into perhaps the toughest schedule the Hogs have ever played in the 2022 season.