Razorback Down Nittany Lions 24-10 in Outback Bowl
By Joey Johnston
When Sam Pittman climbed to the midfield stage, for a brief moment in Saturday afternoon's postgame celebration, he wasn't just the University of Arkansas head coach. As he lifted the Outback Bowl trophy in triumph, Pittman was again the teenager who once worshipped the Razorbacks. He felt the emotions of every roaring Arkansas fan at Raymond James Stadium.
"I used to be in those stands (as an Arkansas fan),'' Pittman said. "I know what this means. I know how big it is.''
For the SEC's Razorbacks, the 24-10 victory against the Penn State Nittany Lions represented a major step toward a return to national relevance. Arkansas (9-4) had its first nine-win season in a decade, while capturing its first bowl game since 2016 after a four-year postseason drought.
Penn State (7-6) had a three-point halftime lead, but couldn't cope with 6-foot-3, 240-pound Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson, the game's Most Valuable Player. Jefferson rushed for 102 of his game-high 110 yards in the Razorbacks' 17-point third quarter, including an 8-yard score that put Arkansas up for good 14-10.
"I just wanted to embrace the moment and do my job,'' Jefferson said. "We were only down three (points at halftime), so the leaders had to step it up and take over. We had to take over the game.''
That's what Jefferson did.
"We see KJ all the time in practice and he's a huge weapon,'' Razorbacks safety Joe Foucha said. "Most guys don't want to tackle him. He leads us in the right way. He's not looking to slide (while running). He's going to drop that shoulder and run over people. It's kind of scary. He gives us so many opportunities.''
For Penn State, the Outback Bowl became the latest chapter in a season of missed opportunities. The Nittany Lions began 5-0 and were ranked No. 4 nationally, but dropped four games by a total of 12 points. Against Arkansas, the Nittany Lions failed on two of their three trips to the red zone, missing a first-quarter field-goal attempt, then throwing an end-zone interception on first-and-goal from the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Penn State was playing without six starters who opted to begin their preparations for the NFL draft.
"Obviously, nobody wants to hear me say that,'' Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. "But was that a factor in the game? Yes. Obviously, we had a depth situation and we had a bunch of guys who played a bunch of football today who really hadn't played a bunch of football all year long.
"We did some really good things early on (in the season), had some big-time wins in tough environments on the road to start the season. We had some injuries that we weren't able to overcome quick enough. But we're responsible for all of that. And Arkansas played very well. They had a lot to do with the game turning out the way it did.''
Some of Penn State's young players stepped up and seized the opportunity. Sophomore defensive end Smith Vilbert, who came into the game with a career four tackles, set an Outback Bowl record with three sacks.
But Arkansas got contributions up and down the lineup. For the Razorbacks, Raheim Sanders rushed for two touchdowns, including a 3-yarder to cap a 12-play, 61-yard drive that finished the first quarter. Penn State answered in the second quarter with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Sean Clifford to KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who ran free after a busted coverage in the secondary.
The Nittany Lions surged ahead 10-7 on Jake Pinegar's 43-yard goal with 5:19 to go until halftime. Meanwhile, Arkansas wasn't getting much done offensively, but it made some adjustments in the locker room.
"I think we did what we needed to and so did our defense,'' Jefferson said. "I'm extremely proud of those guys (on defense), the way they were swarming to the ball and gang tackling. Those guys had our back. Then we picked it up in the second half and we had their backs.''
The Razorbacks scored on all three of their third-quarter possessions - an 8-yard run by Jefferson, a 37-yard field goal by Cam Little and a 1-yard run by Sanders - while outgunned the Nittany Lions 199-49 in the stanza.
Overall, Arkansas won the game with a run of 17 answered points while outgaining Penn State 279-94 in the second half. The Razorbacks tied their bowl record by rushing for 361 yards, including contributions from Dominique Johnson (85 yards), Sanders (79), backup quarterback Malik Hornsby (67) and AJ Green (26). It was also Arkansas' first bowl victory against a team from the Big Ten Conference (it had been 0-4).
"The University of Arkansas is just so happy to have been a part of the 2022 Outback Bowl,'' Pittman said. "It was outstanding. The Outback Bowl was tremendous this week, from the bowl officials to the hospitality to the events to the police officers who took us around from place to place. It was a big honor to be here.
"Some people may think, well, it's not the national championship. To me, it's as big as you can get for our players. It's that feeling of tomorrow morning, when you're at the University of Arkansas, when you're in the state of Arkansas, and you're proud of the Razorbacks.''
For Pittman, it was the stuff of dreams. Representing the program as a victorious head coach was like the prideful feeling he got as a teenage fan. For Jefferson, the feeling was very similar.
"It's a dream come true,'' Jefferson said. "We've been through a lot over the past years, going through a little rough patch. Now we are finally on the rise. Everybody on our team took this like a national championship, big stage, Outback Bowl, Tampa, Florida.
"It's surreal. With the teammates I have, any of them could've won the MVP trophy. They ended up giving it to me. It's big for me, my family, my support system with the fans and having a crowd today that supported the Arkansas Razorbacks.''