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Rushing attack and some clutch defense propels Penn State to 53-39 Cotton Bowl win over Memphis

Journey Brown set a Penn State bowl record with 202 rushing yards, and he and Noah Cain scored two touchdowns apiece to give the Nittany Lions their third 11-win season in the last four years.

Penn State players hold the Cotton Bowl trophy as confetti falls after beating Memphis 53-39 on Saturday, December 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas.
Penn State players hold the Cotton Bowl trophy as confetti falls after beating Memphis 53-39 on Saturday, December 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

ARLINGTON, Texas – On its first nine plays of Saturday’s Cotton Bowl, Penn State called for eight passes. But it was the one run called – a 32-yard touchdown dash by Journey Brown – that put an idea in the offensive coaches’ heads that, “Hey, maybe we should run the football.”

The final numbers – 53 carries, 396 yards, and five rushing touchdowns – proved the idea was the correct one, sparking the Nittany Lions to a 53-39 victory over Memphis in an offensive slugfest played in front of 54,828 at AT&T Stadium.

The victory enabled the Lions to finish at 11-2, their third 11-win season in the last four years, and evened head coach James Franklin’s bowl record at 3-3 since he arrived in Happy Valley.

The parade of runners was impressive. Brown rushed for a career-high 202 yards – a Penn State bowl record – in 16 carries, with two touchdowns, and he was named the game’s outstanding offensive player. Freshman Noah Cain, who had only one carry since being injured against Michigan State on Oct. 26, picked up 92 yards on 15 rushes and also scored twice.

Subtract the yardage from Memphis’ four sacks of quarterback Sean Clifford, and the Lions’ rush totals were 407 yards on 49 carries. They rushed for 18 or more yards on six plays.

“I don’t know if that was exactly how we planned it out, that’s for sure,” Clifford said. “But we were having our way up front, and when offensive linemen are telling you, ‘Run the ball, run the ball, we’re moving ‘em, we’re moving ‘em,’ I’m not going to say, ‘No.’ I’m just really proud of the guys up front.”

Center Michal Menet, who helped spring Brown on a 56-yard scoring run in the second quarter, said he was confident the Lions could succeed on the ground.

“Every once in a while, the numbers pop up on the scoreboard, and you’re like, ‘Holy [bleep], we’re doing really good on the ground,” he said. “It keeps building confidence. The more you run, the more confidence you get, and that makes our job easier.”

Brown enjoyed the long TD run, telling reporters, “All you guys could have scored on that. It was beautiful. You could fit dang-near the whole blimp through that hole sideways.”

The Nittany Lions needed to score as many points as possible to outlast the explosive Tigers (12-2). They were outgained 542-529, and Memphis quarterback Brady White completed 32 of 51 passes for 454 yards. But the defense, led by linebacker Micah Parsons, the bowl’s outstanding defensive player, came up with two key plays.

About to be pulled down by Parsons on a blitz, White threw a backhand pass that safety Garrett Taylor picked off and returned 15 yards for a touchdown that gave the Lions some breathing room at 45-36, with 38 seconds left in the third quarter. The score came three plays after Brown was stopped for no gain on fourth and one at the Tigers 22.

“It’s just how the momentum went,” said Parsons, who had 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. “It was back and forth. I feel like it was a battle. Obviously Memphis is a great team. They came in well-prepared, spread us out a little bit, came with a lot of tempo. But when you’re able to make the play when the team needs you, that’s what matters the most.”

After Penn State took a two-touchdown lead on Cain’s 1-yard run and a two-point pass from Clifford to tight end Pat Freiermuth, the Tigers saw a promising drive snuffed out by freshman cornerback Marquis Wilson’s interception at the Penn State 4.

Memphis actually scored on nine possessions, compared to the Lions’ eight, but six of them were field goals by Riley Patterson ranging from 37 to 51 yards. Clifford threw only 20 passes, completing 11, including a 4-yard TD pass to Jahan Dotson, part of a 28-point second quarter.

Penn State did what it needed to do and sent its seniors out on a positive note.

“I’m so thankful and appreciative of this program, and Penn State football, and what it’s done for me,” Taylor said. “To go out as a senior captain, 11-win season, New Year’s 6 bowl win, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”