Penn State and Ole Miss both seek their biggest wins of the season as the teams meet for the first time on the gridiron.
No. 10 Penn State (10-2) vs. No. 11 Ole Miss (10-2)
Kickoff: Noon, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
TV: ESPN, Noon - Mark Jones (play-by-play), Louis Riddick (analyst), Quint Kessenich (sideline)
Weather: A cool but dry day with a high of 46 and a chilly morning near freezing. Mercedes-Benz Stadium features a rectractable roof that will likely be in use.
PENN STATE RECORD: 88-38, 10th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 112-53, 13th Year
VS. OLE MISS: 2-1
OLE MISS RECORD: 33-15, 4th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 94-49, 12th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 0-0
This will be both the first trip to the Peach Bowl in program history, as well as the first meeting with Ole Miss..Ole Miss will be the 33rd bowl opponent in program history...Penn State is 31-19-2 in bowl history, and has the fourth-most bowl wins in the nation...The Nittany Lions are 2-0-1 in games played on December 30, with a Gator Bowl victory against Georgia Tech in 1961, a 17-17 tie with Florida State in the 1967 Gator Bowl and a 35-28 win against #12 Washington in the Fiesta Bowl in 2017, which marked Saquon Barkley’s final game as a Nittany Lion.
OLE MISS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Ole Miss featured one of the nation’s most productive offenses thanks to a strong set of experienced skill players and a balanced attack. The Rebels averaged 34.8 points per game, good for 19th in the nation and 455.4 yards per game, which comes in at 15th nationally.
The offense is led by Jaxson Dart, who is the best quarterback the Nittany Lions will face this season considering J.J. McCarthy mostly just handed off when the teams met in early November. Dart completed 65.4 percent of his passes this season for just under 3,000 yards, with 20 touchdowns to five interceptions. The USC transfer was able to help carry the offense when needed, putting up nearly 400 yards in shootout victories against both LSU and Texas A&M. Dart did have his two least productive games in the final three weeks of the season, with just 112 passing yards with no scores in a 52-17 loss to Georgia and only 96 yards in a 17-7 Egg Bowl win over Mississippi State, although the wet conditions certainly factored in that night.
He will also test the Penn State defense with his legs, as he had success on the ground throughout the year. Dart has been used as a ballcarier against defenses that were not as suited to stop a mobile quarterback, and even reeled off 136 yards and two scores on the ground in a 48-23 victory over Georgia Tech.
Dart has a trio of senior wide receivers who bring something different to the table. For those of you who have been around for a bit, think of the days of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler. The 6’2’’, 205 lb. Tre Harris is an explosive and physical presence who leads the team with 18.1 yards per catch and eight touchdowns, as well as 851 receiving yards on the season. Jordan Watkins leads the team with 53 catches, and has taken over games at times when the offense needed a boost. The trio is rounded out by Dayton Wade, who has declared for the NFL Draft but is expected to appear in the Peach Bowl. Wade is a slippery big play threat who is known for highlight-reel circus catches.
Ole Miss also has a talented pass catcher in tight end Cade Prieskorn, who is used similar to Ohio State’s Cade Stover — he may not be a frequent target, but will pop up for two or three big plays each game.
The Rebels offense is balanced out thanks to standout running back Quinshon Judkins, who rushed for 1,052 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. At 5’11’’, 210 lbs., Judkins has the power to pick up yardage between the tackles, and can make the defense pay when given daylight. Penn State enters the game with the nation’s top run defense, giving up a measly 69.7 yards per contest, which will make for an interesting match-up.
Now for the potentially bad news for the Ole Miss offense- the offensive line, most notably the banged up tackles, have struggled later in the season. They will not have to face All-American defensive end Chop Robinson, who opted out of the game to focus on the NFL Draft where he will most likely be a first round pick. While losing their best pass rusher isn’t helpful, the Nittany Lions were able to keep up an elite pass rush when Robinson missed time midway through the season and set a program record with 48 sacks. Rising star Dani Dennis-Sutton will take Robinson’s place on the other side of Adissa Isaac, who finished the season with 7.5 sacks. Penn State absolutely have the talent and depth to disrupt the Ole Miss offense if they are not able to keep Penn State’s pass rush at bay.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. OLE MISS DEFENSE
The story of Penn State’s offense this season was that they were able to produce (with the notable exception of games against Ohio State and Michigan) by methodically making their way down the field. While this method won games and did wonders for the time of possession battle, it became incresingly alarming that the offense wasn’t able to produce explosive plays in the air or on the ground. As the season went on, it became more and more obvious this wasn’t by design — the Nittany Lions just were not able to produce big plays on any type of regular basis, making it easier for defenses to defend the small portion of the field they were using which caused the offense to stall on a regular basis.
Things did seem to improve following the exit of former offensive coodinator Mike Yurcich, especially in a 49-0 blowout of Michigan State to end the regular season. The offense finally produced several big plays in both the passing and running game in a carthartic performance. The Peach Bowl now serves as a test of whether the offense can continue that momentum, with most of the skill players set to return in 2024.
This just seems like a game to continue Allar’s progress, rounding out his game with more looks downfield. There will also be a steady dose of Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton on the ground, as well as Tyler Warren and Theo Johnson, who have been the most reliable part of the passing game this season. With Johnson heading to the NFL next season, we may see an early exit to make way for emerging tight ends Khalil Dinkins and Andrew Rapplyea, who saw a limited role on the offense this season. All-American offensive tackle Olu Fashanu is expected to appear, but will almost certainly only s a series of two before parting for Drew Shelton, who will be expected to be a reliable, possibly dominant, presence as a starting tackle next season.
Like Penn State, Ole Miss will be without their most talented pass rusher, as defensive end Cedric Johnson has also opted out of the game. Johnson tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks, and has been a valuable part of the Rebels defense for the past four years.
Ole Miss is likely better on the defensive side of the ball than you imagine, considering their high-profile games this season ended in thrilling shootout victories (LSU, Texas A&M) and a top 10 battle where they allowed 52 points in a thrashing at the hands of Georgia. While they are not a great defense, they also are not a leaky unit that allows offenses to easily push the ball down the field.
They stand right in the middle of the pack defending the run and pass (69th and 59th nationally), and are allowing a very respectable 21.83 points per game, good for 35th in the nation.
Ole Miss has a talented secondary, with four plays who have two or more interceptions on the season. They are led by junior safeties Trey Washington and John Saunders Jr., who each lead the team with three interceptions and are very active against the run. Defensive end Jared Ivey is also a difference maker off the edge, and leads the team with 9.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks. He will be relied on for a big day, especially with his counterpart Johnson among the opt-outs.
Ole Miss kicker Caden Davis was 15-of-20 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 56 yards. He connected on five of nine attempts of 40 yards or more, and made all 42 extra point attempts. Punter Fraser Masin averaged 42.4 yards per attempt this season with a long of 54 yards. Receiver Jordan Watkins is a slippery punt returner, and had a 69-yard return for a touchdown back int he season opener against Mercer.
Penn State-30, Ole Miss-24
I’m going with the Penn State for the reason that allowed them to win 10 of 12 games this fall – its defense is the best unit on the field that afternoon by a wide margin.
Ole Miss has some serious talent on offense and will have more success moving the ball than any, if not all opponents this season. The depth at receiver will be able to test a talented secondary, and Judkins can create on the ground. Dart will also frustrate the defense at times with his legs to extend drives. But ultimately, I trust the Nittany Lions defense to match the incredibly high standard they have set this season. They have playmakers on all three levels who also are disciplined to play as a unit where someone is almost always set up to make a play when everyone stays home and wins their match-up.
While the Ole Miss offense will be able to make some things happen, Penn State’s defense will be able to adjust and limit the Rebels offense enough to leave with a victory.
Penn State’s offense will be able to do enough with a steady dose of Singleton and Allen on the ground, and relying on the tight ends to move the ball. In an absolute best-case scenario, we’ll also see a more comfortable Allar using more of the field and connecting with the wide receivers like Omari Evans, Kaden Saunders and others who are likely to be back in the fall.
The Nittany Lions pull out another win in a big-time bowl game, as we look forward to 2024 maybe, possibly being the season where the team breaks through to become a true national title contender.