The final game of the 2019 season is here for Penn State and more so the culmination of a decade that was a rollercoaster of emotions for anyone close to the program. Had you told a Penn State fan in 2011 or 2012 that the Nittany Lions would finish the decade off with going to New Years Six bowl games in three of four seasons and have a B1G Ten title... many would have but that’s exactly where Penn State is here on December 28, 2019.
1) Compared to some group of five teams that we’ve seen recently in the Cotton Bowl over the last few years, how does this Memphis team stack up?
The only other Group of Five team to participate in the Cotton Bowl in the College Football Playoff era is the 2016 Western Michigan team coached by P.J. Fleck. That’s probably the best MAC team in the conference’s history, but I still believe the 2019 Memphis squad is deeper at the skill positions and possesses a more explosive offense than the 2016 Broncos. The Tigers’ only loss this year arose from on a questionable call on a 4th quarter reception vs. Temple which was surprisingly overturned. Otherwise, we’d be talking about an undefeated team knocking on the door of the top 10 in the rankings. Defensively, Memphis is similar in stature to that Western Michigan team, but one disadvantage the Tigers will face is a revamped coaching staff without head coach Mike Norvell or defensive coordinator Adam Fuller.
2) On offense, how do you expect Memphis to attack Penn State on Saturday and who are some players Penn State fans should watch outside of a quarterback Brady White and running back Kenneth Gainwell?
Under Norvell, Memphis repeatedly took shots at home run plays in the early going. In his press conferences since taking over as the head coach, Ryan Silverfield continues to stress how he wants no culture changes or scheme despite the departure of several staff members. Instead of Norvell, Memphis will run its plays under offensive coordinator Kevin Johns, who coached under Kliff Kingsbury in Texas Tech’s air raid offense in 2018. The Tigers have big play potential on the ground and through the air, and they’ll probably look to utilize Minnesota’s blueprint on how to beat this talented Penn State defense by exposing the Nittany Lions’ zone coverage. Thus, it’s important to keep tabs on Memphis’ wide receiver pairing of Damonte Coxie and Antonio Gibson, a duo very similar in talent to the bunch Penn State faced in Minneapolis. Coxie is a strong-armed 6’3” receiver and the team’s ideal target for jump balls and contested catches. Gibson is the utility player, and he’ll line up everywhere on the field — wide out, in the slot, in the backfield, on special teams. Gibson is a viable deep threat with nearly 20 yards per reception, but in the American Conference title game, he stepped up in a different role as a rusher with 130 yards out of the backfield. Also, I’m intrigued to find out if Penn State utilizes the strategy of kicking it away from Gibson on special teams — a strategy many teams employed this year, especially given the fact that Penn State’s special teams coach is former Memphis assistant Joe Lorig.
3) What does Penn State need to on defense against the Tigers in order to slow them down on Saturday?
Defensively, the Nittany Lions need to bring pressure from the start and force Memphis to play from behind. Penn State’s front seven is one of the most talented in the country, and they have the advantage over the Tigers in the trenches. Yetur Gross-Matos is back after missing the Rutgers game, and by delivering another performance like the one he had in Columbus, he’ll set Penn State up for a likely victory in his final collegiate outing. Memphis suffered three sacks in its only loss this season, and the Tigers were plagued by four turnovers that day. Penn State can increase Memphis’ turnover output by pressuring Brady White and forcing quick, difficult-to-complete throws. Cincinnati’s linebacking corps effectively limited Memphis’ star running back Kenneth Gainwell to 2.4 yards per carry, and Linebacker U needs a similar result if it wants to take away the run and place Memphis’ chances of winning solely in the hands of White.
4) How do you believe Penn State should attack the Memphis defense?
Memphis’ defense is miles improved from where it was last season, but the Tigers don’t have a particularly glaring area of strength or weakness on the unit. Look at Memphis’ toughest games this season — the loss to Temple, the scare vs. Tulsa, and the AAC title game against Cincinnati — those teams experienced offensive success with balanced attacks. For Penn State, tight ends coach Tyler Bowen is calling plays, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowen frequents tight end-friendly plays to do damage against the Tigers’ defense. Drawing mismatches on linebackers with Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers could bolster Penn State in the passing game, especially with the team’s limited wide receiver depth. Other than that, the Nittany Lions should find success with the fresh legs of their 4-headed monster backfield against the country’s 80th ranked rushing defense.
5) How do you believe staff departures and injuries will affect Memphis?
The changes and distractions definitely hurt. It’s a difficult situation for Memphis, playing in its biggest game in program history without some of the coaches that engineered this run, especially Mike Norvell. However, Memphis’ players have been vocally supportive of the Ryan Silverfield hire, who was named interim coach on December 8 and head coach five days later — an eventful month for the former offensive line coach. Silverfield doesn’t have any play-calling experience (usually done by Norvell on offense, Adam Fuller on defense), so offensive coordinator Kevin Johns will run the offense and linebackers coach Kevin Clune will call defensive schemes. Inexperience at these positions could factor into play, but it’s also important to recognize Penn State is in the same boat after the departure of offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. In terms of injuries, the major one that affects Memphis’ offense is the loss of tight end Joey Magnifico. Magnifico will miss the Cotton Bowl with an infection stemming from a knee injury, and he offered a set of reliable hands in short-yardage situations all year with 20 receptions and 335 yards.
6) What is your prediction for the Cotton Bowl?
Penn State earns win number 11, and leaves Arlington with its second New Year’s Six trophy under James Franklin. I expect this game to play out similar to the 2017 Fiesta Bowl vs. Washington, where the Nittany Lions shine in the opening sequences, slow down a bit in the second half, and escape with a touchdown victory over a playmaking offense. My prediction for Offensive MVP is Pat Freiermuth and the Defensive MVP will be Yetur Gross-Matos.
Penn State 34, Memphis 27
Just wanted to say thanks to everyone for making this another great and fun season. Thanks for reading not just my content but all our content throughout this memorable season.