Penn State outlasts Memphis in Cotton Bowl offensive showdown
Written by Ross Michael on December 28, 2019
By Ross Michael and Pat McKeon
AT&T Stadium. Conceived by the visionary mind and built by the blue-collar hands of Dallas Cowboys’ Owner Jerry Jones. The mecca of professional and collegiate athletics that witnessed the ascension of Aaron Rodgers during the 2011 Super Bowl and the coming-of-age of Ohio State’s Cardale Jones to culminate the 2014 College Football Playoff. The acclaimed music venue that has hosted the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Luke Bryan. Now, the backdrop of the 84th annual Cotton Bowl Classic between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Memphis Tigers.
The tenth-ranked Nittany Lions roared into Arlington with a record of 10-2, including two close losses on the road against Minnesota and Ohio State. This was their fourth ever appearance in the Cotton Bowl. The seventeenth-ranked Tigers, meanwhile, marched into Jerry’s World with a 12-1 record on the year winning the American Athletic Conference for the second time in school history. This marked the Tigers’ first ever appearance in the Cotton Bowl.
The Tigers came into the game with one of the most prolific offenses in the country. Ranked 10th in yards per game, 9th in yards per play, and 12th in offensive touchdowns, their versatility and explosiveness on offense were immediately evident as they racked up 184 yards and 13 points in the first quarter alone. Penn State’s defense was able to bend but not break by holding the Tigers to two field goals in the midst of their three consecutive scoring drives.
The second quarter was an entirely different story, as the Nittany Lions’ defense buckled down and the offense finally got rolling. The Tigers stalled to three and outs on each of their first two drives in the second quarter and the Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on all four of their second quarter drives to flip the script and take a commanding lead into halftime.
Penn State capitalized on their running back by committee as Noah Cain, Journey Brown, and Devyn Ford collectively accounted for four of the Nittany Lions five first-half touchdowns. Penn State dominated the ground game as 209 of their 301 total yards came on 25 carries from five different rushers. This, coupled with Memphis’ 79th ranked rushing defense, led Penn State to the lead going into the half.
An unexpected highlighted for the Nittany Lions came from tight ends coach Tyler Bowen, who called plays on offense in place of former offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, who agreed to become head coach of Old Dominion earlier this month. Coach James Franklin expressed his pride in Bowen’s play-calling abilities and discussed his desire for Bowen to contribute to Penn State for years to come, “I hope he stays in Happy Valley with us and with me for a very long time.” Bowen is expected to remain tight ends coach next season, while former Minnesota Offensive Coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca will take the reins as Penn State’s new Offensive Coordinator.
The Lions led the Tigers 35-23 going into the half, the combined 58 points were the most ever in the first half of the Cotton Bowl. This easily surpassed the previous record of 45.
Memphis rallied fiercely to start the second half as they scored on each of their first two drives to cut the lead to 35-33. This was highlighted by a 51-yard field goal from Riley Patterson, which was set up by an interception thrown by Penn State’s Sean Clifford. Patterson had a historic day himself as he set Cotton Bowl records for most field goals (6), longest field goal (51 yards), and most points by a kicker (21). On Penn State’s subsequent drive, Jake Pinegar responded with a 45-yard field goal of his own to extend the lead back to 5 for the Lions.
After another Patterson 41-yard field goal to cut the lead to 38-36, Penn State failed to respond on their ensuing drive. Journey Brown got the Nittany Lions started with a 44-yard run to the Tiger’s 31-yard line. Brown was then stuffed for no gain on a 4th & 1 play, giving the Tigers the ball on their own 22-yard line.
It was finally the Tigers’ time to take the lead.
On Memphis’ first set of downs, however, White coughed up a costly pick-six to graduate senior Garrett Taylor, giving the Nittany Lions a more comfortable 45-36 lead. The second-half tide had finally shifted in Penn State’s direction.
The Tigers responded on their next offensive possession, narrowing Penn State’s lead by 3 with yet another field goal off the foot of Patterson.
Penn State began their next drive with 12:01 remaining in the game. After 12 plays, 75 yards, a 1-yard touchdown run by Noah Cain, and a successful two-point conversion from Clifford to tight end Pat Freiermuth, Penn State led 53-39 with 6:31 remaining.
From there it looked as if the game would be over, but Memphis had no intention of going away quietly. Their offense put together a 56-yard drive and got to the 25-yard line when an interception by Marquis Wilson sealed the game for the Lions. The score would remain 53-39 as time expired, giving Penn State their third 11-win season in four years and their second New Year’s Six bowl win in three years.
Following the game during the trophy ceremony, Journey Brown was awarded the Sanford Trophy, annually given to the Cotton Bowl’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player. Meanwhile, Micha Parsons was awarded the McKnight Trophy, annually given to the Cotton Bowl’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
With the win, James Franklin improves to 3-3 in bowl games as Penn State’s head coach, following two New Year’s Six victories.
Photo credit: Yahoo Sports