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Penn State 53, Memphis 39: Three takeaways from the Cotton Bowl

The Nittany Lions were tested by the Tigers' explosive offense but used a productive rushing game that amassed 396 yards and a defense that made big plays when necessary.

Penn State running back Journey Brown runs for a 56-yard touchdown run against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, December 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas.
Penn State running back Journey Brown runs for a 56-yard touchdown run against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, December 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

ARLINGTON, Texas – Three takeaways Saturday from Penn State’s action-packed 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.

Run the ball

The Nittany Lions frustrated their fans early by calling eight passes on their first nine plays, with one running play – a 32-yard touchdown run by Journey Brown – mixed in. They finally got the message as the game wore on, repeatedly gashing the Memphis front seven for long gains, including runs of 56, 44, 44 and 32 yards, en route to a season-high 396 yards. Brown finished with a career-high 202 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns and was named the game’s outstanding offensive player. Freshman Noah Cain, who had one carry since being injured against Michigan State on Oct. 26, added 92 yards in 15 attempts and also scored twice. Quarterback Sean Clifford threw sparingly, completing 11-of-20 passes for 133 yards while being sacked four times.

Memphis offense stalled just enough

The Tigers looked they would just run up and down the field against the usually stout Penn State defense by scoring on their first three drives. However, a stretch of three possessions in which they had minus-8 yards served to give the Nittany Lions an opportunity to take over the lead and keep it, however tenuously, for the rest of the game. Memphis quarterback Brady White threw for 454 yards on 32 completions in 51 attempts but for all their explosiveness, the Tigers scored just three touchdowns while getting six field goals from Riley Patterson. Penn State’s largest margin was 15 in the first half and though it was reduced to two, 38-36, in the third quarter, the Lions got a couple of great defensive plays to hold on.

Starring on defense

Start with Micah Parsons, the sophomore linebacker who dominated play Saturday with 14 tackles -- including three for loss -- two sacks and two forced fumbles. Then there were two key plays made by the secondary that played a significant role in the victory. Garrett Taylor intercepted White and raced 15 yards for a late third-quarter touchdown after Parsons had grabbed the Memphis quarterback and forced a wild backhand pass that Taylor picked off. That gave the Lions a 45-36 advantage and, after Cain’s 1-yard run for his second touchdown and a 2-point conversion made it 53-39, freshman Marquis Wilson doused the last Tigers threat with an interception at the 4-yard line with 4 minutes, 48 seconds remaining. The Lions sacked White six times and rushed him into a number of hurried throws. Parsons was named the game’s outstanding defensive player.