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46 Random Thoughts on the Cotton Bowl (and everything else)

Random musings on the weekend that was in Dallas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Cotton Bowl Classic - Memphis v Penn State Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Saturday at High Noon in Dallas (well, Arlington), Texas, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Memphis Tigers engaged in a contest of American football, sponsored by Goodyear Tires. The Nittany Lions emerged victorious, 53-39. I have many thoughts, which are set forth randomly below.

  1. When Joe Moorhead announced he was leaving Penn State to take the head coaching position at Mississippi State, there was an outpouring of support and and sadness.
  2. When Ricky Rahne announced he was leaving Penn State to take the Old Dominion head coaching job, it didn’t quite resonate in the same way. In some quarters, there was real satisfaction with his departure.
  3. When you look at the stats 20 years from now, you’ll find this rather odd. After all, Rahne’s teams weren’t poor performers. The Nittany Lions won the Fiesta Bowl in 2017 and scored more points (35) against the Washington than any other team had scored against the Huskies that year. The 2018 Nittany Lions finished ranked 32nd in scoring offense, and the 2019 team version finished 15th in that same metric. During his tenure as offensive coordinator, Penn State was 20-6, won a New Year’s Six Bowl, beat Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pitt, and gave Ohio State all it could handle in both seasons.
  4. For what it’s worth, I think Ricky Rahne did a perfectly fine job here, and his tenure corresponded with significant success. I wish him all the luck in the world at Old Dominion - I expect that he’ll be a better head coach than he was an offensive coordinator, in part because he’s learned from one of the better CEOs in the college football business for more than a decade.
  5. Stats, though, don’t tell the whole story. And while I don’t agree with the fans who starting singing Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye, this game gave a bit more context to those feelings.
  6. Those feelings were frustration. With Joe Moorhead at the helm, we knew the game plan. Yards were nice, and sure, we’d like to have more of those than the other team when the clock hit 00:00. But what really mattered, what we were really looking for, were points. And we scored points with explosive plays and avoiding turnovers. So those are the things we measured.
  7. Rahne was groomed to take over after Moorhead from the jump, and since taking over for the 2017 Fiesta Bowl, we’ve continued to talk a good game about explosive plays. The Moorhead offense mostly remained in effect. Mostly, but not entirely.
  8. I think that was the “problem,” to the extent there was one. Rahne was at the wheel of a Moorhead offense, but without any real stamp of his own on it.
  9. Through much of the third quarter of the Cotton Bowl, Penn State was winning this game. Even so, I could not understand what the team was doing philosophically on offense. I did not believe there was a plan in place.
  10. Now, Ricky Rahne wasn’t the offensive coordinator for the Cotton Bowl. But this was his team, and it was his understudy calling plays in this New Year’s Six Bowl.
  11. For a team that was averaging approximately 15 yards per carry, this was concerning.
  12. The drive coming out of halftime was the most baffling. At that point, Journey Brown had two long touchdowns and Penn State was up by 12. Memphis comes out of the half swinging, scoring on a sneak after consecutive passing plays of 20+ yards.
  13. At this point, Penn State is up 5, with an offensive staff who had an entire halftime plus another opening drive to develop a plan to take advantage of the obvious advantage the team had in the trenches.
  14. Remarkably, the offense elected to throw the ball.
  15. Look, I don’t have any problem with throwing the ball in order to make sure the defense respects that. No one is going to run 15 running plays in a row...
  16. ...except maybe Wisconsin. Or Jim Harbaugh.
  17. Continuing to pass to maintain some sense of balance is fine. But when you’re running game is clicking and your opponent has you on your heels, why in the world are you opening the second half with two passes?
  18. Because of course the second pass got intercepted. Of course it did.
  19. The defense stood up the next series and held Memphis to a field goal. Penn State got the ball back and Journey Brown promptly had two carries for 28 yards. Excellent!
  20. So what did we do next?
  21. If you answered, “Drop Sean Clifford back to pass, only to see him get harassed and fumble,” you win the grand prize!
  22. Thankfully, a Memphis substitution penalty gave us a mulligan. But still...
  23. I don’t know anything more about Kirk Ciarocca than you all do at this point. But as a grown man with years and years of experience running offenses, I have to believe that Kirk Ciarocca has an offensive philosophy and a plan in place. From what I’ve seen, that philosophy meshes well with our talent and stated goals.
  24. Solid hire, Coach Franklin. Now let’s get this done.
  25. At one point, Penn State was up 28-13 and looked like it was about to run away with this game. You have to give Memphis credit for not folding when it looked like the game had turned against it severely. That’s an impressive job by Ryan Silverfield.
  26. Having your first game as a head coach in the Cotton Bowl must be something, eh?
  27. What are the odds that Brady White might be interested in grad transferring to Penn State? Asking for a friend.
  28. Kenneth Gainwell’s pretty good too, but I think we have all the running backs we can handle at the moment.
  29. I just love Journey Brown. He runs so tough and has speed to kill. I’m thoroughly excited to see what he can do next year with a season’s worth of carries.
  30. Ricky Slade - you’ll look great in the slot next year, my dude.
  31. I thoroughly enjoyed Spencer Hall’s description of this game over at Banner Society, and you should too:

Memphis is a wrasslin’ town, so let’s get wrasslin’ with it. One of the most important things in a match is chemistry. One wrestler has to win, sure, but the outcome is less important than how the two get to that result. Each combatant has to have their highs and lows and make the other look bigger, stronger, and more amazing than they actually are.

They have to sell it, and that is why you need a Memphis. Memphis got down by two scores. (Ooh! You’re so strong, Penn State!) Memphis let Penn State run on them not in nibbles, but in huge dashes. (So lightning fast! How can we survive this brutality combined with speed!) To make Penn State’s win as earned as possible, Memphis roared back with big plays and pulled just close enough in the third quarter.

Then, Memphis threw an interception returned for a touchdown and lost. The “I got distracted by Penn State’s manager, dropped the folding chair I was holding, and acted surprised as I got KO’d with the very chair I was holding!” of football moves, if you will.

Putting the best and craziest Group of 5 team in a major bowl will either put your big bad Power 5 team over in the most entertaining way or make history.

32. In retrospect, the defense was...mostly ok? I haven’t been thrilled with Penn State’s defensive backfield performance in weeks. That trend predictably continued against the most explosive offense in the country. Holding Memphis to field goals instead of touchdowns was critical, but playing “bend but don’t break” against a G5 team is understandably frustrating, especially when you expect to line up and out-athlete that team basically across the board.

33. Micah Parsons is terrifying.

34. Micah Parsons has the chance to be the greatest linebacker in the history of Linebacker U. He was legitimately everywhere. It was a remarkable, starmaking performance. Big players make big plays in big games.

35. Micah caused the play to happen, but credit senior Garrett Taylor for scoring on a pick 6 in his final game the basic blues. He’ll be missed.

36. Sean Clifford looked better in the beginning of the season than the end, but his potential is still high and he has the chance to be special. That first touchdown drive was a perfect encapsulation - timely, smart, and on target throws to Dotson and KJ Hamler opened up the field for Journey Brown’s 32 yard rumble.

37. What can we say about KJ Hamler that hasn’t already been said? We’ll miss you, kid. Go get it.

38. Lost play of the game? Pat Freiermuth down the sideline to the goal line. We get one more year of this - savor it.

39. Not for nothing, Kirk, but you’re going to have to figure out how to use a tight end.

40. Penn State wins the Cotton Bowl, while Notre Dame is irrelevant and Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all fall. A fine bowl season already.

41. It’s a lonnnnnnnng off season, but I love that these guys are coming back for “unfinished business.”

42. James Franklin got a lot of good press for his “form tackling.” But we’re a wrestling school - that was a double leg that Cael Sanderson would be proud of.

43. But seriously, James Franklin - you’ve been awesome and all of this success is well deserved. Thanks for putting this program exactly where it belongs. I’m looking forward to seeing it all come together next season.

44. My BSD crew - I’ll miss you for the next few months. But Blue/White Weekend isn’t that far away.

45. On to basketball season.

46. We are...