by: Otis Kirk
TAMPA, Fla. — The talk of opt outs, COVID concerns and all the other stuff is now behind No. 21 Arkansas and Penn State as they are set to battle at noon local time on Saturday in the Outback Bowl.
Both Arkansas (8-4) and Penn State (7-5) saw some players opt out of the game, but both teams are set to hit the field and try to take home an Outback Bowl win. Both Sam Pittman and James Franklin wanted to play this game if at all possible.
“I think that’s one of the things that me and coach were talking about the other day,” Franklin said. “I’ve been a head coach, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a head coach for 12 years. Have never had an opt-out in all of my 12 years. They’ve had a little bit of it. We’ve had more. It’s challenging.
“What I would say is I’m focused on the guys that are in our locker room. That doesn’t mean that I’m not happy and excited and supportive of the guys that are not. But I’m excited about the guys that are in our locker room and I’m excited about the guys that are going to have bigger roles.
“I think we all know the last two years of college football have been different and have been challenging. Obviously not only what’s really happened nationally but also conference to conference. This was handled differently in every single conference. Our season was canceled, then restarted again. It’s been a challenging two years.”
Franklin was asked if it ever crossed his mind not to play this game?
“What I would say is we discussed what we think is going on a bunch in college football,” Franklin said. “I’ll speak for myself. We’ve never seen this in college football, right? We’ve never seen people not playing. It happened a little bit last year. We thought we were done with it. It’s happening again this year. I don’t really kind of want to get into it because I can’t really speak for other people, what they are doing.
“For us, we want to play. We want to represent the Outback Bowl the right way. We want to represent Penn State the right way. Are there challenges, probably more challenges than there have ever been before in college football? Yes. But we’re excited about representing the Big Ten the right way. We want to represent Penn State the right way. We’re very blessed and fortunate to be here in the Outback Bowl. We’re going to take it as a blessing and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Arkansas really only had three players opt out or transfer who they were counting on for this game. Wide receiver Treylon Burks and defensive end Tre Williams both opted out to enter the 2022 NFL Draft. Vito Calvaruso entered the transfer portal and is going to Wisconsin. He was outstanding kicking off for Arkansas, but wanted a bigger role which he wouldn’t get with Cam Little at Arkansas. Penn State has had several players opt and Pittman was very complimentary of how Franklin handled it.
“I think it says a lot about Penn State’s Coach Franklin,” Pittman said. “He’s had several guys. If you look at it, if we played in the regular season, the teams would be different. I mean, they’re just different because we’ve had a couple leaving for the NFL. He’s had several over there at Penn State. The teams are different. I mean, that’s just what it is.
“Once you wrap your mind around that the teams are different, you’re going to field a different football team, you’re probably going to find some surprises both ways from who’s out there. But we have 120 on our team. The other 115 or 110 that are left right now, they deserve the opportunity to play. I don’t think either one of us – I don’t want to speak for coach – are looking for a way out, we’re looking for a way in. I think that’s what coach did. I know that’s what we did, as well.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson has gained Franklin’s attention when he talked about Arkansas’ run-pass offense.
“I think it starts with their quarterback,” Franklin said. “Big, physical, mature guy. I think they do a really nice job of obviously not only from a tempo standpoint but to me it starts and ends with the running game.
“I know you talk about balance, but I think it’s obvious that they want to run the ball, obviously having a head coach who has an offensive line background. Those guys usually pride themselves with that. I think his personality and identity shows up on the offensive side of the ball. I think they do enough of the things to keep you honest. The play-action passes, RPOs off of that, that can be challenging. Also some of the tricks and gimmick plays.
The other thing is I think when you have that type of quarterback, you have to manage it during the season. When you get to the bowl game, this is the last game of the year, we’re expecting them to run that 245-pound quarterback a bunch. We got to be prepared for that. It’s going to be a challenge. There’s no doubt about it. I think their offensive coordinator does a good job keeping you on your heels and off balance as much as possible. They’ve had the personnel to be able to do it. I think it really starts and ends with their quarterback.”
The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and televised on ESPN2.