It is remarkable that for a program coached by Joe Paterno and a program coached by Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz, Penn State and Arkansas have never met. Not in the late 1960s? Not in the early or late 1970s? Not in the early 1980s?
By Matt Zemek
You could find both Penn State and Arkansas in the bigger bowls of a college football season: Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, Sugar, Gator. Both schools have played in each of those five prime traditional bowls, but never head to head. It’s crazy.
Now, the wait is finally over. These are obviously not two of the best teams the schools have ever had, but seeing them on the same field will, in itself, be compelling when the new year begins in Tampa on Saturday.
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround, taking the Hogs from 3-7 in his first season as head coach to 8-4 in his second with several close losses, including a 52-51 loss to Ole Miss on the road. The only game in which the Razorbacks were never really competitive was their game against Georgia in Athens, where they lost 37-0. Other than that, Arkansas has made tremendous strides under Pittman and could be a dark horse SEC contender in the future. First the Razorbacks have to get through Penn State.
1 — K.J. Jefferson must play well
Penn State’s defense is no joke. Aside from allowing the seventh-fewest points in the country, their red zone defense is also No. 2 in the nation. While former defensive coordinator Brent Pry is now the head coach at Virginia Tech and two of their better defensive players are skipping the game to prepare for the NFL draft — we’re referring to Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks — the Nittany Lions are still sure to make life very tough for K.J. Jefferson and the Razorback offense. The Nittany Lions are more than capable of forcing Jefferson into one of his mixed-bag performances, but forcing him into interceptions will be no easy task. Despite his volatility, with a high-ceiling and low-floor profile, Jefferson has thrown just three interceptions this season. All of them came early in the season. The last interception thrown by Jefferson was against Ole Miss on October 9. The key for Jefferson is to blend mistake-free ball with dynamic play. Being safe can’t mean failing to produce. It can’t be all or nothing. Jefferson has to be clean and potent, instead of sacrificing one for the other. This is the true test he faces against a quality defense.
2 — Shut down Sean Clifford
As good as Jefferson has been, Clifford has been almost as good. Clifford has thrown for 20 touchdowns on the year and only six interceptions. Like Jefferson, the last time Clifford threw an interception was in October (against Ohio State). This means Arkansas will have to force a normally cautious quarterback into making mistakes of his own. Clifford is nearly a 3,000-yard passer this season. If Clifford has a lights-out performance, Jefferson will have a very tough task in trying to keep pace in a shootout.
3 — The quarterback who makes the fewest mistakes wins
This flows from the first two game keys. It feels like a quarterback’s game, for better or worse … and probably worse. Some games are about maximizing big plays, others more rooted in mistake avoidance. This game seems to be more of the latter.
In looking at this contest, one thing jumps right off the page: the total number of interceptions between these two starting quarterbacks entering the game. Nine picks is the total. That’s how rarely these two signal-callers make big mistakes. The only time either of these quarterbacks threw for more than one interception in a game this year was when Clifford did so against Iowa. Penn State lost to the Hawkeyes on October 9, the last day K.J. Jefferson threw an interception. Whichever signal caller can keep the cleanest sheet is likely to come away with the “W.”