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No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 17 Memphis: Cotton Bowl Preview

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Penn State and Memphis are set for their first meeting on the gridiron.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Indiana at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Penn State aims for a top 10 finish and second New Year’s Six victory in three years as they face AAC champs Memphis for the first time in program history.

#10 Penn State (10-2) vs. #17 Memphis (12-1)

Kickoff: Noon, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX

The Betting Line: Penn State -7

TV: ESPN - Mark Jones (play-by-play), Dusty Dvoracek (analyst), Olivia Dekker (sideline)

Weather: Temperatures will still be cool prior to kickoff with a low of 44 on Saturday morning, and a strong chance of thunderstorms means that the recreable roof will be put in use.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 55-23, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 79-38, 9th Year

VS. MEMPHIS: First Meeting

Ryan Silverfield:

MEMPHIS RECORD: 0-0 (1st game as coach, replaced the departed Mike Norvell)

OVERALL RECORD: Same

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

NOW THE FUN PART....

MEMPHIS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Brady White is wrapping up his second season as starting quarterback, and has been a major part of the Tigers’ recent success. White has been extremely consistent throughout the season, doing everything that’s needed. On the season, he’s completing 64.1 percent of passes with 33 touchdowns to nine interceptions. White has a big arm and penchant for the big play, with a completion of at least 43 yards in each of the past 12 games.

White is coming off his worst performance of the season, however, going 18-of-40 for 253 yards and a touchdown and interception. It was enough for the Tigers to get past Cincinnati 29-24 to win the Conference USA title. Brady doesn’t provide any danger as a runner, with negative rushing yards in eight games, and a season-high of 14 rushing yards.

White has plenty of talented options, with three passcatchers with at least 32 receptions on the year. Junior Damonte Coxie is the main attraction, putting together a season of highlights with 68 catches, 1, 144 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Coxie particularly shines in big moments. In back-to-back meetings with Cincinnati, he had a combined 15 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown to help carry the Tigers to a conference crown. He also went off for 143 yards and two scores in the Tigers’ statement victory against SMU on Nov. 2. At 6-3, 197 lbs., Coxie has the size that has given the Nittany Lions secondary problems all season.

Freshman running back is the main show in the ground attack, and for good reason as he is set to be among the nation’s top runners in 2020. He is averaging just under 110 rushing yards per game, for a total of 1,486 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. That doesn’t include the 532 yards and three scores through the air, for a total of over 2,000 yards from scrimmage before the bowl game. The Tigers will be working to get the ball in his hands as often as possible, and will provide a fascinating match-up with Penn State’s elite linebacker corps and stout run defense.

The Tigers’ offensive line has obviously done a tremendous job by making one of the nation’s most prolific offensive attacks possible. Penn State will need to exploit their penchant for giving up sacks, as Memphis have allowed 21 on the season and allowed multiple sacks in six games this season. The Nittany Lions will need to find a way to get after Brady to force him into some poor decisions. If given time, he has the weapons to have a very big day against a Nittany Lions defense that showed cracks, especially in the secondary, during the final stretch of the regular season. However, the line does give up TFLs at a high rate, which the Nittany Lions will need to capitalize on to force some third-and-longs and force the Tigers offense off the field.

Memphis will be without starting right tackle Scottie Dill, who is skipping the Cotton Bowl to shift his focus to the NFL Draft. Dill could possibly be replaced by a back-up with little experience. They will also be without starting tight end Joey Magnifico, a senior who is being forced out of his final game with Memphis due to minor knee surgery.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MEMPHIS DEFENSE

Tigers defensive end Bryce Huff could make life difficult for the Nittany Lions offense, just like Josh Allen did in the Citrus Bowl a year ago. Huff will be playing in his final game of a prolific career at Memphis. In the past two seasons, Huff has racked up 15.5 sacks and 34 TFLs, and will be motivated to go out with a bang to help his team get its first win against a Big Ten squad in program history. His counterpart Joesph Dorceus can do plenty of damage himself, as the former walk-on has compiled five sacks and 14.5 TFLs this season. In addition to these two, Memphis has seven other players with at least two sacks and can bring the heat from just about any spot.

This includes STAR (linebacker/defensive back hybrid) Austin Hall, perhaps the most active member of the defense. Hall leads the team with 69 tackles in addition to nine TFLs, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Memphis has proven better at defending the pass then the run. This could be terrific news for Journey Brown, who finished the season with three 100-yard efforts in the final four games. Sean Clifford and Noah Cain should also be back to nearly full health, meaning the Nittany Lions should have the personnel to challenge the Tigers run defense. Memphis is giving up 179.1 yards per game on the ground, which is 79th nationally.

The pass defense has been more dangerous, giving up 200.7 yards in the air and coming away with 10 interceptions- good for fifth in the nation.

SPECIAL TEAMS

If you watched the Tigers at all this season, you quickly learned that special teams isn’t just something the team excels at, but it’s a huge part of their identity. Memphis makes anyone pay for napping during special teams, and the Nittany Lions special teams units will need to be ready for everything and anything on Saturday. They like to use their top-talent on the special teams units, and regularly make momentum-shifting plays that can completely turn a game in their direction at any moment.

The Tigers have three different returners who took a kickoff to the house this past season. Antonio Gibson was the most regular returner, averaging 28.8 yards per return, while Chris Claybrooks was even better with a 30.7 yard average. It will be crucial for Penn State kickoff specialist Jordan Stout to have a reliable game and do what he does best- put each kickoff out of the end zone to take away any chance of a return. The Tigers punt return unit is solid, but not as lethal as the kickoff return team. Traveon Samuel leads the way with 8.9 yards per return, although Keith Brown Jr. has a 27-yard touchdown return without an attempt, giving him an average of “infinity” yards per attempt.

Memphis easily has one of the best kickers in the nation in Riley Patterson. He was 17 of 19 on the season, and an utterly impressive four-of-five from 50-yards or more. It should come as no surprise that the Tigers also have an NFL-bound punter in Adam Williams. He has an impressive 44.3 yard per punt average, and had a punt of 50 yards or more in nine of 13 games. His long for the season is an eye-popping 77-yarder, and also had a 76-yard punt to boot.

PREDICTION

Penn State-31, Memphis-24

I won’t lie, this match-up has made me nervous since it was announced. The Tigers do many things very well, and will not be an easy team to walk over like some other automatic non-5 qualifiers in the past. This team is legitimate, with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball and a tenacious and prolific special teams unit that always gives them a huge advantage.

However, I also don’t expect this particularly team to take Memphis lightly, or fail to show up for its bowl game. The 2019 Penn State team has overcome many things throughout the season, and have shown they never lack fight or effort, and will be all business on Saturday.

KJ Hamler and Journey Brown both lead the charge for the offense. In what could be his final game as a Nittany Lion, Hamler contributes 105 receiving yards and a score, as well as a huge kick return to set up a key touchdown in the second half. Journey Brown goes off for 120 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, while Pat Freiermuth finds some holes in the Tigers defense to add another.

On defense, Micah Parsons demonstrates why he is a first-team All-American selection with 14 tackles, 3 TFLs and a forced fumble. Yetur Gross-Matos goes out with a bang before heading to the NFL with 1.5 sacks, and Robert Windsor and Shaka Toney each contributing one as well.

Most importantly, Penn State clinched the game with a clock-churning drive, a pleasant occurrence that has become a regular occurrence in 2019 that was nowhere to be seen in the past.