Penn State (9-3 Overall, 6-2 Big Ten) vs. Houston (12-1 overall, 8-1 C-USA)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 2, 2012 - 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Location: Cotton Bowl Stadium (92,158), Dallas, Texas
TV: ESPNU? For Real? Clay Matvick (play-by-play), Danny Kanell (analyst), and Lisa Salters (sideline)
Series: Penn State leads, 2-0 (Last meeting Sept. 17, 1977: Penn State 31, Houston 14)
Line: Penn State +7
Weather: Sunny, breezy, 61 degrees
The Preliminaries. We'll concentrate on the actual game as much as possible, but the news from Dave Joyner's pseudo-presser last night in a country music hall as Penn State players were being hypnotized on stage (yes, all of that):
I'd like to get this finished so whoever the coach is going to be, whether it's Coach Bradley or somebody else, so they have enough time (to recruit). There's that three week open period at the end there, that would be nice. I'm not going to let that (determine a deadline) if it's a couple of days one way or the other, but I think it would be very good for recruiting and I've told the recruits that. People have asked me what should recruits do, and I've said to them, look, just have them be patient and they'll have plenty of time I think to make their mind up for what they want to do with the rest of the beginning of their football career.
There's much more the linked BWI article. Your assigned degree of believability may vary.
Flashbacks. The last time we saw Penn State, they were being obliterated in all aspects of the game against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. On Sunday, PSU will be without four players: WR Curtis Drake, WR Shawney Kersey, QB Paul Jones, and DB Derrick Thomas. The most significant loss, however, appears to be QB Matt McGloin as a result of his fight with Drake. Unless McGloin quickly passes some concussion tests between now and Sunday (and remember, Tom Bradley stated that he wanted McGloin to get some practice time in before any potential game action), it's going to be Rob Bolden under center. That means this, without a safety net:
Bolden got appreciably worse as the season progressed, and despite having a month or two to breathe and look back at the regular season, I'm not sure we're any closer to an explanation for his regression. He struggled, even after leading the team on its late, game-winning touchdown drive at Temple. The PSU coaching staff eventually limited Bolden's playing time to what can only be called "sympathy starts", and he was terrible. However, on Sunday, he's The Man. There's nobody in his rear-view mirror.
Houston's...Defense? Cougar QB Case Keenum is the obvious superstar for Houston, but a few words of concern about their defense. First, they run a 3-4, something Penn State doesn't see on a regular basis. Second, beware of LB Sammy Brown. He led the nation in tackles for loss (28.0) and had 12.5 sacks this season. Happier news? The Cougars gave up boatloads of yards to putrid teams, including UCLA (554), UTEP (538), Marshall (506), and Rice (475).
Crunkle. Plenty of respect and awe from Penn State's defensive coaches and players when it comes to Keenum (45 TD, 5 INT) and the pass-crazy Cougar offense:
Penn State is also shorthanded in preparing for Keenum, as scout team quarterback Paul Jones did not make the trip for the Nittany Lions. Even with Jones, Penn State would have had a tough time preparing for the high-powered attack.
"We cannot duplicate, going against ourselves, we cannot duplicate that attack," said Bradley. "We don't do a lot of the same things that they do, the precision that they have, that's just so hard to do. You've got to credit them, they've got about every NCAA offensive record there is, that's pretty good."
A senior-laden defensive backfield, led by safety Drew Astorino, knows that the Nittany Lions are up against.
"Their route combinations are incredible," said Astorino. "Usually you have route combinations that are pretty standard throughout college - this guy does an out or this guy does a streak or a corner post - but they do the funkiest stuff and just take zone defenses and just crunkle them up. It's tough to spot. You've got to be very disciplined, you've got to put pressure on the quarterback. It's going to be up to every single person. That's what Case Keenum is great at. His progression is 1-2-3-4-5. If three is covered, he's looking at four and five. Everyone has to be on their toes."
Put Another Way. Derek Moye led Penn State with 40 receptions. That total would make him the sixth-leading receiver at Houston. Houston's running backs are also quite adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. Their offensive personnel have been together for quite a while, so the loss of former head coach Kevin Sumlin might not sting as much as it normally would.
Prediction In GIF Form?
Expect weirdness, as there's little to lose on either side. Houston has made its interim coach, Tony Levine, the permanent head coach. Tom Bradley is likely facing his last game on the Penn State sideline. The big story on the field will be Bolden, and how he handles the spotlight after a disasterous season. Based on his play this year, not to mention Drake's absence, it's hard to go with Penn State here. Say what you want about Matt McGloin's throwing abilities -- at least he provided a borderline credible passing threat. Houston will be able to creep up their crappy-to-middling defense if Bolden can't hit some passes early.
Houston 31, Penn State 17.