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Journey Brown runs to a career day in Penn State’s romp over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl

Brown looked a lot like an NFL running back as he racked up 202 rushing yards on 16 carries, finding the end zone twice as the Nittany Lions beat Memphis, 53-39.

Penn State running back Journey Brown runs past Memphis defensive back Quindell Johnson.
Penn State running back Journey Brown runs past Memphis defensive back Quindell Johnson.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

ARLINGTON, Texas –– It usually takes a couple of plays for Journey Brown to get comfortable in a game. He likes to read the defense, read his keys, and identify blitzes.

But when the redshirt sophomore touched the ball for the first time in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, it took only seconds for him to get going. He bounced off one Memphis defender, stiff-armed another, carried a third from about the 15-yard-line to the 5, and crossed the goal line with a fourth defender on his back.

“After the first couple hits, that’s when I got my feet wet and took off,” Brown said after being named the game’s offensive MVP.

That run felt good for Brown –– not just because it jump-started his career day at AT&T Stadium, but served as a message to all of the critics who called him just a speed running back when he got to Penn State.

“To get proof that I’m a balanced back, it feels good,” Brown said. “People thought I was just a runner, but I feel like I’ve been showing that I can do it all. I take a lot of pride in it.”

His first carry was the only one that had people on social media comparing him to Marshawn Lynch, but Brown kept looking like an NFL running back, as he racked up 202 rushing yards on 16 carries, finding the end zone twice in the Nittany Lions’ 53-39 win.

The Meadville, Pa., native’s second rushing touchdown was a lot easier. It was the first play of Penn State’s third drive of the second quarter, and Brown took the handoff from Sean Clifford, made one jump cut to the right, and saw nothing but green grass in front of him.

“You could’ve fit dang near the whole blimp through that thing,” Brown said.

But even though Brown set a Penn State record for rushing yards in a bowl game, he was happiest on the sidelines, cheering his teammates.

“I feel like a proud mother,” Brown said. “I play through them. Just to be able to play with these guys, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

All season, people criticized coach James Franklin’s four-man rotation at running back, and while there were inconsistent performances and other bumps and bruises along the way, they kept their heads up the entire time. And that’s why they all contributed to the win over Memphis.

“At the end of the day, you can’t really pout about how many touches you get, because you gotta make plays when your number is called,” freshman Noah Cain said. “If you do that, everything else will take care of itself.”

On top of Brown’s day, Cain finished with 92 yards and two touchdowns, sophomore Ricky Slade broke off a handful of big runs, and Devyn Ford found the end zone for the third time in his freshman season.

“Our room could’ve went sideways quick,” Cain said. “But everybody stayed positive, even when things might not have went somebody’s way.”

The Nittany Lions finished with 396 yards on the ground against Memphis. It was only the second time all season they rushed for more than 300 yards. They racked up 331 yards in the season opener against Idaho, an FCS team.

“We were playing bully ball,” Slade said. “We knew we were bigger than them on offense, so we just used that to our advantage.”

Saturday’s performance was special for Penn State’s backs. Brown finished with the second-most rushing yards in a New Year’s 6 bowl, 28 yards shy of Ezekiel Elliott’s 230-yard performance in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, while Cain set a team record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a freshman.

“That was what we planned on doing the whole year,” Brown said. “A lot of people doubted us, told us that it was going to be one [guy], we were going to break apart, or someone was going to leave. But we’re a tight-knit group. We leave the egos. One of us eats, we all eat. We showed that today.”

Each of them will be back next season -- none of them has plans to transfer.

It’s nothing like in recent years, when Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders were dominant lead backs. The Saquon and Sanders Era is over, and the LawnBoyz Era is well underway.

“I feel more confident in those guys than I do almost in myself,” Brown said. “That’s just how close we are. I’m not afraid to tap my helmet" to come out. "There’s no drop off for the LawnBoyz.”