FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas and Penn State will battle in the Outback Bowl on Saturday.
The game will pit the No. 21 Razorbacks (8-4) against unranked Penn State (7-5). Both teams have lost some players who would have had a large impact on this game, but neither team expects anyone to feel sorry for them as this is happening to teams all over the country.
While football is a team game it will be important for some players to step up. Here’s a look at five who are good candidates to step up big if the Hogs are to win the game.
KJ Jefferson, Quarterback
Jefferson has had an incredible redshirt sophomore season. He has protected the football and executed various two-minute drills in a very impressive fashion. He won’t have key wide receiver Treylon Burks, but Jefferson can spread the ball around to the wide outs and tight ends. He really has leaned on tight end Trey Knox in the two-minute drills. He has completed 184 of 275 passes for 2,578 yards, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. On the ground, Jefferson has rushed 126 times for 554 yards and five touchdowns. Since there is no more games this season after the bowl game I look for Kendal Briles and the Hogs to turn loose much like they did against Ole Miss.
Sam Pittman on Jefferson: “I think he’s going to run if we need him to win the game. Obviously we went into Ole Miss thinking that would be the way for us to win the game, and I’m not for sure that – with us using him that much, it’s part of it, we wanted to win – that it didn’t affect him a little bit against Auburn, being beat up and those things. But we don’t play anybody, as you said, after this game. We’re going out there to do the best we can and use our personnel the best we can to win.”
Montaric Brown, Cornerback
In what will almost certainly be Brown’s final game as a Razorback he will once again be asked to step up big. Penn State won’t have leading wide receiver Jahan Dotson who caught 91 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns. He opted out of the game and will enter the 2022 NFL Draft. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford passed for 2,912 yards this season. He still has some good targets to throw it to and it will be important for Brown and the Arkansas secondary to play good coverage. Brown had a great season. The former Ashdown four-star standout finished the season with 53 tackles, 24 solo, one for loss, five interceptions, five pass breakups, a forced fumble and one recovered.
Sam Pittman on Brown: “I think as the season went on he became more comfortable. You could see it. He was in position. Look back to the interception he had against LSU. It almost seemed effortless, but it wasn’t effortless. He was in position. When the guy showed his hands, he turned around eyes. I think he matured as the year went on and grew in confidence. Believe he had six interceptions (it was 5) and that may have led the SEC (tied w/ S.C safety Jaylan Foster). I’m not positive but I think he led the SEC in interceptions at the corner spot. I think he had a really good season and I expect him to play well in the bowl.”
Cam Little, Kicker
This true freshman will add kickoff duties for this bowl game. Vito Calvaruso handled that all season, but has since transferred to Wisconsin. Little has been money for Arkansas in the kicking game this season. He is 19 of 23 on field goals with a long of 51 and then been perfect on 43 point after touchdowns. In a close game each field goal could be very important and Little is one of the best in the nation. Penn State has Jordan Stoudt who the Hogs recruited hard who handles their kicking duties.
Sam Pittman on Little: “There was probably about a two- to three-yard difference on average on Vito and Cam, so we feel very confident we can kick it out. But I hated to lose Vito. Really good. Very valuable to us on those kickoffs. I can remember against Mississippi State with the time, I said, ‘Scott we better pop this up, sky it and things of that nature.’ He said, ‘He’ll kick it out Coach.’ And I said, ‘Scott, you better be right,’ and he did. I was nervous about it.”
John Ridgeway, Nose Guard
Ridgeway has really provided a solid boost to the Arkansas interior defensive line. His play has earned him a spot in the Senior Bowl. Penn State isn’t a good running team, but it will be important to not allow them to get that aspect of their offense going in this game. Ridgeway provides a big obstacle for Penn State trying to establsh an inside running game. In 11 games this season, Ridgeway had 39 tackles, 11 solo, four for loss, two sacks and one quarterback hurry.
Pittman on Ridgeway: “It’s hard a lot of times to sit there and grade a nose guard. Maybe was easier with Jon Marshall because he was more of a pass rushing type guy. Ridge is more of a 2-gapper. He’s going to take guys off the linebackers and things of that nature. He’s more of a two-play guy. In other words, he’s not as much a third-down threat as Jon Marshall was. If I could go out and get a John Ridgeway every year in the portal we would take as many as they would give us. He has been a great kid. He works hard, We’re going to this bowl and he’s in the Senior Bowl and there was no talk about not playing and those type things. Now listen when I say that someone is going to say I said something bad about Burks and I did not. Put that out there. I’ve already said…..But he didn’t say anything about that..He wanted to play. He never had any bowl before. He wants to play and came here for it. I just think he’s an outstanding guy and had a really good year for us. He’s a fourth-, fifth-round projection right now.”
Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool and Hayden Henry, Linebackers
OK, I cheated on this putting three players for the one spot. But how do you separate those three? No team in the country has a better trio of college linebackers. Some may have better NFL prospects at linebacker, but for the college game this trio is as good as it gets. Pool finished with 120 tackles, 41 solo, 7.5 for loss and two pass breakups. Morgan had 96 tackles, 38 solo, seven for loss, 0.5 sack, one interception, three pass breakups and six quarterback hurries. Henry contributed 94 tackles, 46 solo, 10.5 for loss, three sacks, one pass breakup and seven quarterback hurries.
Sam Pittman on Pool, Morgan and Henry: “Well, I want them to go out in style. I think everyone wants their seniors to go out that way. I’d like to see them make a lot of tackles and play lights out like they have all year and we win the game. Bowls are fun when you win. But those guys race to the ball, you know. We’re keeping them fresh in there and they are all playing really well. Certainly it’s no secret we’re going to try to get Bumper to come back. I don’t know if we can or not but we’re trying. So we’ll see.”