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Let’s be honest. There are worst ways to start a new year than by watching your favorite college football team lose in a bowl game when it’s cold and rainy outside, right? As dark and gloomy as things seemed to be while watching Penn State’s 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl, it could have been worse, right?

If you don’t think so, you probably were not alone. A glance at my Twitter feed showed plenty of frustrations and negative reactions as Penn State had no answers for the Arkansas running game after halftime and the offense was completely out of sorts for much of the game. Even as someone who likes to find optimistic spins wherever I can, even I had a tough time finding too many bright spots in the Outback Bowl.

But it would also be unwise to push the panic button already for the 2022 season based on the 2021 season’s bowl finale. We can spend some time reacting to what we witnessed during the season soon enough, and believe me, we will. But here are my five takeaways from the Outback Bowl and the Outback Bowl only.

OK, maybe a few thoughts about turning the page toward the 2022 season will be sprinkled in.

1. Penn State’s defense played like a defense missing six key starters

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Say whatever you want about players opting out of bowl games, but it is incredibly difficult to make up for the absence of six of your top defensive starters against a talented and physical team like Arkansas. Penn State had a lot of roster management to throw into the bowl prep, which led to players getting placed in roles they don’t typically hold (Jonathan Sutherland at linebacker) or getting players a chance to step into a significant role for the first time without much time to prep.

For one half of play, Penn State’s defense looked like it was going to be able to get the job done. But Arkansas realized they didn’t have to do to much to take the gas out of the undermanned Penn State defense.

Opt-outs didn’t lose the game for Penn State, but it certainly hurt in a big way. It’s not an excuse. It is a reality.

2. Sean Clifford played his worst game of the season

Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not here to rag on Sean Clifford. I have said time and time again he is a player that deserves a tremendous amount of credit for balling out for Penn State as hard as he has over the last few seasons. But he clearly did not play his best in the Outback Bowl, and that was disappointing to see.

The lack of offense shouldn’t fall entirely on Clifford, of course. The offensive line still showed plenty of room to improve, but Clifford was 14-of-32 for 195 yards and two interceptions. He was flagged for intentional grounding on the opening drive of the game that led to a badly-missed 50-yard field goal attempt, and he was intercepted in the end zone on a play that was forced the way he may have done in 2020, not 2021.

Clifford did have 46 rushing yards on 12 attempts and he connected with a wide-open KeAndre Lambert-Smith for a touchdown, but he overthrew some key passes (one of which was still hauled in by Parker Washington), and he was eventually replaced by Christian Veilleux in the fourth quarter.

Barring any unforeseen changes, Clifford is coming back in 2022, as he previously announced. With Veilleux still sticking around and Drew Allar coming in with the Class of 2022, the Clifford storyline will be magnified just a bit more next fall.

NEXT: James Franklin loses coaching matchup and more Outback Bowl takeaways

3 Sam Pittman outcoached James Franklin without doing much

Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Enough cannot be said about the job Sam Pittman has done at Arkansas in a short period of time. I may have been one of many to question whether or not Pittman was going to be the guy who would turn Arkansas around when he was first hired, but the man just blends in so well with the program. And it’s paying off. In the Outback Bowl, Pittman outcoached Franklin without having to really do much of anything at all.

Pittman said in his on-field postgame interview immediately following the conclusion of the game that he told his players at halftime they knew they couldn’t play much worse than they did. So Pittman’s big halftime adjustment at halftime was simply to focus on running the football. And my goodness that paid off for the Razorbacks. Against a Penn State defense missing six key starters, including right up the middle of the defense, Arkansas pounded out 353 rushing yards against a defense that has struggled against the run all season long.

On the other side, Franklin and defensive play-caller Anthony Pojndexter were playing with a short deck, so who knows how much could have actually been done to catch up to what Arkansas was doing. But on the offensive side of the ball, Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will have some soul-searching to do after the 2021 season went out with a whimper.

4. Another game without a running game

Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

This has been harped on time and time again this season, especially down the final stretch of the schedule, but Penn State once again played a game without a 100-yard rusher. The Outback Bowl makes a full 13-game schedule played by Penn State without a single-player rushing for 100 yards in a single game. That is absolutely incredible for a team like Penn State, which had three players on the Doak Walker Award watch list to start the season.

Clifford was the team’s leading rusher with 48 yards. Keyvone Lee rushed four times for 35 yards, including a 25-yard run. And Noah Cain carried the football five times for 28 yards, including a 16-yard run. As a team, Penn State rushed for 125 yards.

The shortcomings of the running game begin with the offensive line, which underwhelmed all season long for the Nittany Lions. And if the future of the running back position is going to live up to the hype it brings in with Nicholas Singleton, the 2021 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, then the offensive line has to improve significantly.

This is going to be a major storyline to follow in the offseason. It would not be shocking to see some transfer portal activity with the running backs and offensive line. Yurcich has some things to figure out here.

5. The Outback Bowl was the only way this season could have ended

Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t see this coming, then you weren’t paying attention. To expect Penn State to suddenly come out and flip a switch and all of a sudden have a running game it can be proud of and a defense that would play as if it wasn’t missing six key starters would have been wishful thinking. And no, I can’t sit here and tell you I expected Penn State to lose this game by two touchdowns, but it certainly wasn’t shocking to me (I had Arkansas winning 30-24, so I clearly put too much faith in the offense).

This Penn State season started off with a fun 5-0 record that lifted the expectations for the season, and that was perhaps misguided with the benefit of hindsight. Maybe I should have given more respect to Penn State’s shortcomings early on, including the lack of a running game against Villanova. But the second half of the season showed Penn State just didn’t have enough to win against good teams. And that is concerning, for sure, especially after handing James Franklin a 10-year extension (a move I am still fine with, by the way).

If there is one thing I can be sure of, it is that this is nowhere close to good enough to be satisfactory for Franklin, his staff, and the players. Penn State has been mediocre for two seasons, for a variety of reasons. That puts Penn State in the position of a bit of an identity crisis. Is this program going to be the kind that can go to New Years Six bowl games three out of four seasons as they did from 2016 through 2019, or is it a team that will float around .500 as it did in 2020 and 2021?

Penn State faces some big questions and challenges in 2022. And the time to turn the page must be now. The Outback Bowl showed once again this team has a lot of room for improvement.

As the saying goes, there’s always next year!

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