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Penn State vs. Memphis in the Cotton Bowl: Five Things to Watch

Memphis' offense and special teams will present problems for the Nittany Lions. The Tigers' excitement over playing in the first New Year's 6 bowl in program history must be matched.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has had a few weeks to get healthy for Saturday's bowl game.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has had a few weeks to get healthy for Saturday's bowl game.Read moreCRAIG HOUTZ / For the Inquirer

ARLINGTON, Texas – Penn State ends its 2019 season Saturday with its third New Year’s Six game in the last four years, a Cotton Bowl matchup against Memphis.

Cotton Bowl

Penn State vs. Memphis

Saturday, noon, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/Radio: ESPN; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)

Records: Penn State, 10-2, No. 10 in final College Football Playoff ranking; Memphis, 12-1, ranked No. 17.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 55-23; 79-38 overall). Memphis, Ryan Silverfield (first season, 0-0).

Series: This is the first meeting.

Five Things to Watch

Who wants it more?

Penn State fooled those who thought its young team couldn’t win more than eight or nine games this year and will be looking to complete its third 11-win season under Franklin. But this has been a particularly special season for Memphis, which won the top Group of Five spot in the College Football Playoff ranking and earned its first New Year’s Six bowl game in program history.

The talk has been that this is the Tigers’ Super Bowl, that it has the weapons on offense and a good enough defense to knock off the Nittany Lions of the big, bad Big Ten. Added to their excitement is the fact that Silverfield, the team’s offensive line coach and deputy head coach, was elevated to permanent head coach after Mike Norvell left for Florida State following the AAC championship game.

The Nittany Lions’ task, in addition to playing sound fundamental football, is to match their opponent’s intensity and enthusiasm and not make mistakes resulting from a lack of focus that plagued them in last year’s Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.

Clifford’s health

Lions quarterback Sean Clifford bravely hung in there for much of the season despite taking shot after shot from opposing defenses. He suffered his first injury (undisclosed) in the Minnesota game and left the Ohio State game two weeks later with a leg injury, forcing him to sit out the final regular season game against Rutgers.

Now he’s back and looking healthier. Not having played in five weeks, he should be rested and ready.

“No one is going to be 100% at this point in the season,” Clifford said Thursday. “If you’re 100% at this point in the season, you haven’t played. Obviously there’s going to be certain things that I could do better than in the first game when I was completely 100% healthy. But at the same time, I have the same week of preparation this week.”

Bowen’s offensive plan

With Ricky Rahne gone to Old Dominion and new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca seeing his new team for the first time, tight ends coach Tyler Bowen will be calling plays for the Nittany Lions. Bowen, who sat next to Rahne in the coaches’ booth the entire season, said he feels it will be business as usual, with good communication and feedback throughout the game. The question is whether Franklin will want the game call to be close to the vest or if he will allow Bowen to expand the passing game a bit.

Disrupting the Memphis passing game

The Tigers owned one of the most prolific offenses in the country this season, meaning all levels of the Penn State defense must function effectively. While many have looked to the secondary as inconsistent at times this season, the Lions’ pass rush needs to find a way to harass Memphis quarterback Brady White, and the linebackers must pay attention at all times to redshirt freshman Kenneth Gainwell, a threat both running and receiving.

Special teams could be key

The Tigers’ special teams have returned three kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns this season. Wide receiver Antonio Gibson is especially dangerous, averaging 28.8 yards on kickoff returns, fifth in the FBS. An interesting twist is that Penn State special teams coordinator Joe Lorig held the same job at Memphis the previous three seasons and knows what his new team is up against. However, given that Penn State was one of the nation’s best at defending kickoffs and punts all season, it will be an interesting matchup.