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Taxslayer Bowl Preview: Penn State vs. Georgia

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After a three-game skid to end the regular season, the Nittany Lions try to end the year on a high-note in the program's second-ever game against the Georgia Bulldogs.

Penn State (7-5, 4-4) vs. Georgia (9-3, 5-3 SEC)

Kickoff: Jan. 2, Noon, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, FL

The Betting Line: Penn State +6.5

TV: ESPN Allen Bestwick (play-by-play), Dan Hawkins (analyst), Tiffany Greene (sideline)

WeatherA cool day with highs in the upper 50s, little chance of rain.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 14-11, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 38-26, 5th Year

VS. GEORGIA: 1-2

Bryan McClendon:

GEORGIA RECORD: 0-0, 1st Year (Interim)

OVERALL RECORD: 0-0, 1st Year

VS. PENN STATE: 0-0

...NOW THE FUN PART

GEORGIA OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
The Bulldogs have one of the nation's most underrated passers in quarterback Greyson Lambert. While Georgia has nearly always employed a run-heavy offense, Lambert quietly put together an extremely efficient season, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,844 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. It should be noted that in the longstanding tradition of SEC quarterbacks, Lambert is dating Miss Georgia.

Lambert is a pure pocket passer with prototypical NFL-size at 6'5", 220 lbs. He is not much of a threat to run, and only had positive yards on the ground in four games. His season high is a whooping five yards rushing against South Carolina, in a game where he also happened to connect on a mind-boggling 24 of 25 attempts for 330 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His lack of mobility could be play right into Penn State's sack-friendly defensive front. However, Georgia's offensive line has done an outstanding job of protecting Lambert, allowing just nine sacks in 11 games (or one less sack than Penn State allowed against Temple). Bob Shoop will need to get creative to get pressure on Lambert, rather than just relying on the Nittany Lions outstanding front four to get to the quarterback. Finding ways to get to Lambert on passing downs will be absolutely crucial in getting the Bulldogs offense off the field.

The Bulldog's offense took an enormous hit with the season-ending injury to running back Nick Chubb in week six. Chubb was easily on his way to an All-American, season with a great shot at contending for the Heisman after racking up 745 yards in the first five weeks. While it's always an impossible task to replace one of the nation's best players (just consider Penn State's pass rush without Carl Nassib in the final two weeks of the season), sophomore Sony Michel has done an admirable job in relief.  The sophomore was especially strong in the final four games of the season, with for 165, 77, 132 and 149 rushing days against the likes of Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech. He also stepped up in a big way with 145 yards on 22 caries against Tennessee following Chubb's injury early in the game.

Like Chubb, Michel is a bruising back who can also get outside for a big gain. If Penn State's offense struggles to stay on the field, Michel is the type of back who can wear down the defense in the second half. He is also capable of creating plays out of the backfield, even lining up wide as an extra receiver in certain formations. Senior Keith Marshall is another bruising running back who will see carries on Saturday. While he lacks the explosiveness of Michel, he can also wear on a defense and is especially effective in short-yardage situations. Georgia will be without its starting fullback Quayvon Hicks, who will miss his final collegiate game with an injury.

The Bulldogs do not have a gamebreaking receiver on its roster. Fifth-year senior Malcolm Mitchell is Lambert's favorite target, catching 53 passes for 751 yards and four touchdowns on the season. True freshman Terry Godwin has outstanding speed and has contributed 31 catches for 345 yards and a touchdown. Godwin was one of the most sought-after receivers in his class, and could be poised for a breakout performance.

GEORGIA DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
Penn State's offense just can't catch a break. After facing off against three of the top-ranked defenses in the nation to end the regular season, they now must find a way to produce against a very stingy Bulldogs unit. Georgia defends the pass better than anyone in the nation, allowing just 146.1 yards through the air per contest. They also rank eighth in total defense, giving up just 298 yards a game and 10th in scoring defense by allowing 16.9 points per contest.
Georgia isn't quite as stout against the run, but still give up just 151.9 yards per game.

After transferring from UAB following the elimination of the football program in 2014, linebacker Jake Ganus was welcomed with open arms to Georgia where he has made a significant and immediate impact. The senior leads the team in tackles with 96 and four negative hits. Ganus will be working next to a new inside linebacker after junior Tim Kimbrough is facing a suspension for the game. Kimbrough is the team's third-leading tackler and his presence in the middle will be missed. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd will be ready to terrorize Christian Hackenberg, however. Floyd has outstanding instincts and excels at getting to the quarterback in a hurry. Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is used in a similar manner as Floyd, and is extremely disruptive in the backfield. On the season, he has 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and 12 quarterback hurries.

Safety Dominick Sanders is a rising star in the SEC and one of the best all-around players on the Bulldogs defense. He leads the team with five interceptions, has a strong presence in run support and is used in a variety of ways on blitzing situations.

Georgia is extremely athletic and versatile throughout, but especially in the back seven. The Bulldogs will use their linebackers to create chaos for a Nittany Lions offensive line that has found trouble against similar defenses. The key to the game will likely be Penn State's ability to keep Christian Hackenberg upright so that the offense can find some type of balance and rhythm against yet another stacked defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
Penn State's kick units have struggled at times this season, and it could continue to be problematic against Georgia's explosive duo of return men, Reggie Davis and Isiah McKenzie. While both split duties on punts and kickoffs, Davis is the primary kick returner with a healthy 23.2 yard average on the season. McKenzie, on the other hand, has taken two punt returns to the house this season and is a threat whenever the ball is in his hands.

Kicker Marshall Morgan has connected on 17 of 24 field goals as a senior. He is only eight of 14 in field goals of 30 yards or more, which means Georgia may be more apt to roll the dice on fourth downs once they get into Penn State territory. Backup quarterback Brice Ramsey pulls double-duty as the punter, and has done a fine job with a 42.4 yard average and a long of 58 yards.

PREDICTION

GEORGIA-20 PENN STATE-16
L
ike many mid-tier bowl games, this one is difficult to predict as both teams are in a state of flux. Penn State does have much less upheaval than Georgia considering they are replacing an offensive coordinator, while the Bulldogs are undergoing a complete overhaul as they transition out of the Mark Richt era. Even the Bulldogs interim coach for Saturday is on his way out the door to join the South Carolina staff in 2016.

It's hard to tell if Georgia will even be motivated to play this game considering all of the turmoil surrounding the program since the end of the regular season. However, Penn State has yet to prove they can find productivity against a top-tier defense, and that is once again what they will be facing. It's an excellent opportunity for the offense to prove itself moving forward and for individuals to make an impression on Joe Moorhead before he takes the reins. But without any frame of reference, it's nearly impossible to believe the Penn State offense can put up points against a great, albeit short-handed, defense.

Saquon Barkley hits the century mark while Brandon Polk has his most productive day as a Nittany Lion, but it's not enough as Penn State's offense has to settle for too many field goals to come away with the 'W'.