No. 10 Penn State's ground attack overwhelms No. 17 Memphis in 53-39 Cotton Bowl victory

Penn State running back Journey Brown (4) carries the ball to the end zone for a touchdown against Memphis in the first half of the NCAA Cotton Bowl college football game, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

No. 10 Penn State got a significant test from AAC champion No. 17 Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, but the PSU ground attack was ultimately too much for the Tigers to handle. 

The Nittany Lions rushed for a whopping 396 yards in the win, including 202 yards and two scores from Journey Brown, in a 53-39 victory. While the Memphis offense was able to put up yards through the air in massive chunks, the Penn State defense held when it needed to, forcing the Tigers to settle for six Riley Patterson field goals. 

And when Memphis finally made a play, stuffing Brown on a fourth-and-1 deep in Tigers territory, the Penn State defense responded with a big play of its own. Micah Parsons, Penn State’s All-American linebacker, swooped in on a blitz and got pressure on Memphis quarterback Brady White, who threw for 454 yards on the afternoon. White made an ill-advised decision to toss the ball toward a teammate, but it fell right into the arms of PSU safety Garrett Taylor for a pick-six. 

Instead of Memphis having a chance to go ahead, the defensive score put the Nittany Lions ahead 45-36 with 38 seconds left in the third quarter. Memphis would respond with a field goal on its next drive, but could not get another stop. 

On Penn State’s next drive, it was Noah Cain who carried the load. Eventually, on his seventh carry of the drive, Cain put PSU ahead 53-39 with a one-yard score with 6:31 to play. White would throw his second interception of the game on Memphis’ next drive, and Penn State would hold on to a hard-fought win. 

What does this mean for Penn State?

With the win, Penn State has reached the 11-win mark for the third time in the last three seasons — all under James Franklin. PSU also improves to 2-1 in New Year’s Six bowl games under Franklin. 

The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten back in 2016, but have fallen behind Ohio State in the Big Ten East the last three seasons. With a majority of its talent returning for 2020, the Nittany Lions should be Ohio State’s biggest challengers in the division yet again. OSU will visit Beaver Stadium in Week 8 next year.

Sean Clifford, the team’s redshirt sophomore starting quarterback, did not have his best game but showed flashes of potential over the course of the season. He will need more help at the wide receiver position, especially if KJ Hamler decides to declare for the NFL draft. But Brown, Cain and a slew of other studs return at running back. Pat Freiermuth will be back at tight end as well. 

On defense, Parsons — who finished with 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles in Saturday’s win — will lead the way at linebacker. Yetur Gross-Matos, the team’s best pass rusher, has already declared for the draft, but Franklin and staff have recruited at a very high level. Expect plenty of hype surrounding the Nittany Lions ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Memphis proved it belonged on a big stage

Even playing without head coach Mike Norvell, who left for Florida State, Memphis proved it belonged with a team like Penn State. Entering the game, Memphis had already had its best season in program history. The AAC title was the school’s first outright conference championship since 1969. The 12 wins — Memphis finishes 12-2 — was already a school record.

Saturday’s game was the first of the Ryan Silverfield era. Silverfield was Norvell’s offensive line coach and was promoted to head coach following Norvell’s departure. He has plenty of firepower returning on offense in 2020, especially running back Kenneth Gainwell and receiver Damonte Coxie. White, who began his career at Arizona State, also has another year of eligibility.

The Tigers could find themselves back in a New Year’s Six bowl game once again in 2020.

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