Memphis played just one Power 5 opponent — a 4-8 Mississippi team — during the regular college football season, along with two ranked teams in the American Athletic Conference, Navy and Cincinnati (twice in two weeks), on the way to grabbing the Group of 5 berth in the Cotton Bowl and facing Penn State.
For their part, the Nittany Lions competed in 10 games against Power 5 opponents and five vs. ranked teams. But the representatives of the big, bad Big Ten Conference would be wise to take the Tigers very, very seriously in Saturday’s game.
Memphis (12-1) has been lighting up the scoreboard all season, and enters the game at AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas averaging 40.5 points and 480.7 total yards per game, ranking eighth in the nation in points and 10th in yardage.
Redshirt junior quarterback Brady White is eighth in passing efficiency, completing 64.2% of his throws for 3,560 yards and 33 touchdowns. He is averaging 15 yards per completion and 9.7 yards per attempt, both ranking sixth nationally. Running back Kenneth Gainwell, the conference freshman of the year, has rushed for 1,425 yards.
“The things that jump out to us as a defensive unit, the packaging they do, is so different,” Lions linebacker Cam Brown said. “They put the receivers in the backfield. They’re running the running back all around, the tight ends are motioning, and they run two-tight-end packages and run the ball right at you. They have a lot going on in their offense, so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
The Tigers, whose only loss came against Temple at the Linc, are known for explosive plays. They rank first in the nation with 32 plays of 40 yards or longer, counting offense and special teams, and 19 plays of 50 or longer. In the game against Navy, they had a 99-yard kickoff return, a 75-yard run from scrimmage, and a 73-yard pass play.
The Memphis passing game, which has topped the 300-yard mark in five games, will test the Penn State secondary. The Lions gave up 300-yard games to Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Indiana, with the Golden Gophers striking for eight completions of 20 yards longer to contribute to Penn State’s first loss of 2019.
Head coach James Franklin said, however, that the pass defense is more than just the secondary.
“It’s the pass rush, it’s pressuring the quarterback, it’s the secondary, it’s all those things,” Franklin said. “We had some blown assignments late in the year that I don’t think we necessarily should have had. I think our players and staff feel the same way.
“But I know we’re looking forward to this opportunity, clean some things up, play well in this bowl game, get pressure on the quarterback, sack the quarterback, make some plays on the ball as well. But, yeah, I think we’ve got a very high standard here for how we want to play and what we want to do.”
The Nittany Lions conducted their first two practices of the week Tuesday and Wednesday at AT&T Stadium, working in the afternoon while Memphis had the field in the morning. A visitor on Tuesday was former Lions guard Connor McGovern, now with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Nittany Lions also must match the intensity the Tigers are going to bring to the bowl game, the 13th in their history and sixth in a row.
“It’s the biggest game in their program history, but we need to take the mentality that it’s the biggest game in our program’s history just because it’s the next game,” Penn State safety Garrett Taylor said. “It’s another opportunity to go out there and put something good on tape and get a win and finish the season off the right way.
“I don’t think we’re going to have any problem going in with the right mentality. We’re not going to take these guys lightly. We respect them a lot. We’ve seen the tape, a lot of talented players, a lot of explosive athletes. So we’re going to go in there like in every other game this season and play Penn State football.”