TAMPA — Arkansas went into its Outback Bowl matchup with Penn State with one of the country’s best rushing offenses. But through the first two quarters Saturday — even against a Nittany Lions defense depleted by players opting out of the game — the Razorbacks were not quite themselves.
At halftime with Arkansas down 10-7, coach Sam Pittman talked to his players not just about their mistakes but how to get back to doing what they do best.
“He came in and told us, ‘Hey, we’re only down three.’ At this point, the leaders took over, just being more vocal,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “We took it as a challenge. We put our best foot forward, and we played Arkansas-brand football.”
What came next was a Razorbacks running game that just wouldn’t quit, and it led to a 24-10 victory at Raymond James Stadium.
On its opening possession of the third quarter, Arkansas drove 75 yards on seven rushing plays, capping the drive with an 8-yard score by Jefferson.
“We go in at halftime, we don’t know if we can run,” Pittman said. “We were off. I thought we were sluggish. But to go out, get the kickoff, and go bam, bam, bam, bam, and do it what I call Arkansas style, that was pretty fun.”
Arkansas finished the game with 353 rushing yards on a bowl-record 58 attempts. Its 9-4 record is its best finish since 2011.
For Penn State coach James Franklin, the shift from the first to the second half could be explained by Arkansas’ commitment to running the quarterback. But it was also hard, he said, to deny the impact of his thinned-out defense on the Nittany Lions (7-6).
“Obviously, nobody wants to hear me say that, but was that a factor in the game? Yes. We had a depth situation,” Franklin said. “We had a bunch of guys that played a bunch of football (Friday) that really hadn’t played a bunch of football all year long. I wasn’t going to bring it up. But it is a factor.”
After a start that featured big defensive stops on both sides, Arkansas struck first with a 3-yard touchdown run from running back Raheim Sanders as the first quarter ended. The Nittany Lions responded soon after. Quarterback Sean Clifford hit wide open KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who, taking advantage of busted coverage, walked into the end zone on a 42-yard reception.
That appeared to be the momentum swing Penn State needed, and the Nittany Lions forced back-to-back Arkansas punts before taking the lead with a 33-yard field goal from Jake Pinegar.
Penn State attempted to extend its next drive with a fake punt, but it failed, and the Nittany Lions turned the ball over on downs. Arkansas, trying to make something happen with just seconds to play before halftime, was intercepted on a trick play by Penn State safety Ji’ayir Brown, who got his second interception of the game.
In the first half, Penn State’s defense successfully limited the impact of Jefferson, who went into the Outback Bowl with 2,578 yards passing and 21 touchdowns on the season. But on that game-changing first possession of the second half, Jefferson strung together four carries for 46 yards.
The Razorbacks forced a Penn State three and out on its ensuing drive, then scored again on a 36-yard field goal from Cam Little.
From there, Arkansas, and Jefferson, couldn’t be stopped. On the Razorbacks’ next possession, the redshirt sophomore had a 34-yard run to put Arkansas in the red zone, setting up another rushing touchdown from Sanders, this one from 1 yard out.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions began having some offensive success again, converting a big fourth-down play to keep a drive alive. But on first down from the Arkansas 10-yard line, Clifford was intercepted by Arkansas defensive back Joe Foucha in the end zone.
It was Penn State’s final trip into Arkansas territory.
The Nittany Lions had only one other possession in the fourth quarter as Arkansas turned up the heat in its running game, melting more time off the clock.
For a team playing in its first bowl game in five years, eyeing national relevance, Saturday’s outcome was a good place to start, Pittman said.
“We’re hungry for football. Our state is hungry for football,” he said. “There’s always folks that want more, and one of them is me. But to be Outback Bowl champions with nine wins, I’m really, really proud of our team and what we’ve accomplished.”