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For as many things Penn State did well on defense enduring the 2021 season, there were some concerns about the ability to stop the run against teams that knew how to attack on the ground. Against Arkansas in the Outback Bowl, and without six defensive starters, it was only a matter of time before the Razorbacks kept that trend going.

Penn State’s defense played well in the first half of the Outback Bowl, but it didn’t have nearly enough gas in the tank after halftime, and the Razorbacks capitalized on that in a big way. Big dual-threat quarterback KJ Jefferson and the running back duo of Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson steamrolled and overpowered the Penn State defense filled with players being thrown into new roles or getting their first significant taste of pivotal game-time action.

Penn State’s defensive line, which was already without PJ Mustipher to a season-ending injury during the regular season, played without Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo. Both players opted out of the bowl season to begin preparing for the NFL. The linebacker position was down Penn State’s top two tacklers from the regular season with Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith each opting out. And the secondary was without Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields. Their replacements played well for 30 minutes, but that was simply too much talent to make up for as the game continued on and halftime adjustments were made.

Arkansas rushed for over 300 yards in the game, with the majority of that coming after halftime when Arkansas realized there was no more need to try throwing the football against the Nittany Lions. Arkansas averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt in the game, which is a horrible number

There really is no other way to explain this performance than to say Arkansas smelled blood in the water and pounced on it as much as it could. And who could really blame them? The era of players opting out has drawn plenty of criticism from some and has been a hot topic of debate, but the reality is this exactly what can happen to a team. If Penn State wasn’t missing those six starters on defense, would Arkansas still have dominated on the ground? Who knows for sure, but you would have liked Penn State’s chances a lot more if the opt-outs didn’t exist.

It will be very easy to use the opt-outs as an excuse for the performance of the defense, because it is a legitimate point to be made. James Franklin will likely be on the receiving end of plenty of criticism for how his defense played and adjusted, and that will be fair to a certain point. But he can not be put at fault for preparing for a bowl game without six starters on defense. If Franklin will be deserving any further scrutiny, it will be for the performance of the offense, which was shut out in the second half and was out of sorts all game long.

Did opt-outs cost Penn State a bowl victory. Of course not. And is the future of the defense in shambles? Hardly. There will still be plenty to like about what Penn State can do on defense next season with Manny Diaz entrenched as the defensive coordinator and everyone having a full offseason to properly prepare for their new roles.

And perhaps this experience in the Outback Bowl will create a little bit of extra motivation to come back bigger and better in 2022.

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