Warm weather, the beach, and Penn State football. Bringing in the New Year in Florida at the Outback Bowl wasn’t a bad way to kick off January. That pesky final score was really the only downer from the trip.
Still, the popular bowl in the Sunshine State provided an opportunity for this year’s team to spend one more week together and for Penn State alumni and fans to unite in Florida, where Penn State finished their season 7-6 after a 24-10 setback to Arkansas.
The season’s final Roaring 20 showcases how the season ended, for Nittany Lions both on and off the field.
1. Essentially right after player interviews ended, Jesse Luketa announced that he’s declaring for the NFL Draft. Good for him, and congratulations. There’s been a lot of talk about opt outs, and what people consider to be right and wrong. My thoughts, which I’ve shared already: Any players who’s worked and put himself in the position to chase his dream of playing in the NFL should go for it. If that means forgoing the bowl game, so be it. To borrow a phrase from Luketa: Simple.
Now then, turning to the days leading up to the game:
2. Sometimes your backup plan is what should’ve been the No. 1 plan all along. We ran into some problems connecting onsite for our episode of Football Letter Live from the bowl tour welcome event, so instead, we recorded everything and posted it later that evening. In the end, it all worked out.
3. We chatted with former Penn State GA Matt Fleischacker, who’s a fast-rising college coach who’s currently the defensive coordinator at Hobart College in Geneva, New York; and with Alumni Association Vice President Kelley Lynch. We also threw in some season highlights, and you can watch the episode on our Facebook page. Additionally, here’s our 2021 playlist featuring all of this season’s episodes.
4. Our annual bowl service project remains one of our favorite times of the year, and more than 100 volunteers united at Gandy Beach on Dec. 31 to help clean up the area. Here’s a video of the day, and photographer Steve Manuel captured this group photo. Thanks to the Arkansas Alumni Association for partnering with us, and a special shoutout to the University’s cheer and band that kicked off the morning.
5. The Blue Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, Lionettes, and Nittany Lion transformed Tampa into a welcoming city for Penn Staters, performing at multiple events throughout the week. We live streamed their performances at the pep rally and the bowl tour’s pregame event, at Ybor City and George M. Steinbrenner Field, respectively.
6. Steinbrenner Field’s located diagonally across the street from Raymond James Stadium, offering a gorgeous backdrop. The 31-acre facility, named after the team’s former volatile owner, was built in 1996. In addition to serving as the Yankees’ spring training headquarters, it’s also home to the Yankees’ Class-A Advanced affiliate, Tampa Tarpons.
7. While we were in town, we caught up with Penn State grad Jill Beckman. She’s the social media coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and their Twitter account boasts a million followers. Our Q&A with her is well worth reading, as Beckman provided thoughtful responses. She has a lot of maturity and perspective for someone who’s been out of college for less than five years.
8. Raymond James Stadium is absolutely beautiful. Here’s one of the field-level shots we captured.
9. The pregame flyover was especially impressive. We chatted briefly with one of the pilots on the field, telling him simply, “That was awesome.” That prompted a big smile. Deservedly, all the pilots were recognized on the field. You can see the flyover and the recognition on our Twitter page.
10. Blue Band drum major Ryan First nailed both pregame flips — what else would you expect? We had a great vantage position, right next to one of the goal posts. You can see the video here.
11. We happened to pass Sean Clifford as the quarterback walked off the field and into the locker room. James Franklin said it was a medial decision by the team’s trainers to pull Clifford out of the game. Franklin’s always said every spot is an open competition and that starting spots aren’t guaranteed. The next nine months are a critical time for this program, especially at quarterback. Does Clifford start next year? How close is the gap between him and Christian Veilleux? How soon can 5-star recruit and incoming freshman Drew Allar push for the starting job? One of Franklin’s biggest tests now that his contract extension is in place is to figure out who will lead the offense moving forward.
12. Parker Washington is ridiculous. In a very good way. We tracked his one-handed catch, though from looking through our viewfinder, I figured the ball was overthrown. Then I see Washington stand up with the ball. Absolutely incredible catch radius. That’s a created next-generation stat. Essentially, if you throw the ball near Washington, chances are he’ll catch it.
13. KeAndre Lambert-Smith will pair nicely with Washington next year to create a formidable receiving duo. Lambert-Smith pulled in a 42-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to tie the game at 7. He finished with three catches for 74 yards, both second-best to Washington (seven catches for 98 yards).
14. Ji’Ayir Brown collected two more interceptions Saturday, including one in the end zone to thwart an Arkansas drive in the first quarter. He finished with a team-high six interceptions and also tallied 73 tackles, good for third on the Nittany Lion defense this season. It’s entirely possible Brown is the best returning safety in the nation.
15. You can see additional sights from the game, including James Franklin’s pregame lap and the alma mater. During his lap, Franklin told the band standing nearby that they’re the best band in the land and photobombed a band member posing for a photo. Good stuff.
16. Brent Pry is a hell of a coach. As much credit as he got, I’m still not sure it’s enough. For most of the season, the defense played at a level that was good enough to compete for a Big Ten title. And for large portions Saturday, even with missing nearly half their starters, the Nittany Lions continued to come up with big plays.
17. Happy 40th birthday to Adam Taliaferro. As we said, Adam’s one of the best and most inspiring Penn Staters we know. Wishing him and his family a wonderful 2022.
18. All-American linebacker Brandon Short was in Tampa for the game, and he stopped by our welcome event Thursday evening. Everyone was happy to see him and wished him well. Good to see Brandon with his Penn State family.
19. Last month, John Black shared this will be his final season covering the team for The Football Letter, and Alumni Association members will his final column Wednesday, when we send the member benefit email.
20. See everyone April 23 at Beaver Stadium for the Blue-White game.
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