Two top-25 offenses meet in Arlington, and there will be no shortage of outstanding skill position players at AT&T Stadium on December 28. Memphis’ 8th-ranked scoring offense has dominated with speed and home-run plays all season long, but the Tigers may be battle-tested by Penn State’s sturdy defense. The Nittany Lions run an efficient, methodical offense but still manage to check in at 24th in points per game.
Both teams are experiencing significant changes in play-calling due to the coaching carousel. Memphis will be without newly-hired Florida State head coach Mike Norvell, playing under recently hired Ryan Silverfield. Silverfield doesn’t have extensive play-calling experience, but with four years of tenure under Norvell, he possesses much familiarity of the Tigers’ offense.
Meanwhile, Penn State lost offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, who was named the new head coach of Old Dominion. Thus, offensive recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen will call plays for Penn State’s offense in the Cotton Bowl.
While the personnel changes heading into the 84th Goodyear Cotton Bowl, the players that compose these teams still remain on the sidelines. Here are key offensive pieces to watch in the first New Year’s Six bowl of the 2019 postseason:
Brady White is one of 12 finalists for the Manning Award, the only award which recognizes the nation’s top quarterback by his entire season’s body of work — including the bowl performance. White can add a stellar bowl performance to an already-impressive season. The Arizona State transfer improved his numbers from last year, throwing for over 3,500 yards and 33 touchdowns (7th in FBS) through his first 13 games. White only threw nine interceptions this year, however, five of those picks occurred in his last four contests. He had a fair share of dominant passing games, carving up five defenses with 330+ yards this season.
White isn’t particularly a scrambler, finishing the season with negative rushing yardage due to sacks. He came up in a vital moment in the American Conference Championship Game with a go-ahead 1-yard touchdown run and he will have to step up to make those plays when battling the country’s 7th-ranked scoring defense.
Penn State Nittany Lions
White led the Tigers to a conference championship in the first week of December, but it’s been a lot longer since Nittany Lions’ starter Sean Clifford has taken a snap. The junior sat out the regular season finale against Rutgers, recovering from a leg injury suffered in the third quarter against Ohio State. Clifford, the starter of 11 games this season, will likely make his 12th appearance in Arlington, building on a campaign featuring 2,522 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, and six interceptions. After an injury to starting quarterback Trace McSorley in last year’s Citrus Bowl, the first-year starter earned brief bowl experience against Kentucky.
Clifford surpassed the 300-yard passing mark twice this year — once in a near-perfect performance against Maryland and another time in a tough-fought loss to Minnesota. While Clifford is Penn State’s aerial option, his backup Will Levis may make an appearance as a wildcat quarterback. Levis nearly led a comeback against Ohio State in November and played the entirety of the finale versus Rutgers. An aficionado for the read option, Levis rushed for 213 yards and three touchdowns on 52 rushes while passing for 223 on 47 attempts.
Memphis exhibits one of the best open-field runners in all of college football in Kenneth Gainwell. The Freshman All-American served as an impressive successor to 2018 All-American Darrell Henderson, continuing the tradition of excellence in the Tigers’ backfield. Gainwell averaged a hair under 6.5 yards per carry this year, rattling off a streak of six 100-yard gains as a redshirt freshman. He managed 12 touchdowns this year, although he has not seen the end zone since a November 2 win over SMU. Gainwell broke off for four 60-yard runs this season and will be tested Saturday against a Penn State rushing defense which allows 98 yards on the ground per game.
Outside of Gainwell, Memphis’ offense features Kylan Watkins and Patrick Taylor Jr. Both Watkins and Taylor share the role of secondary back behind Gainwell, combining for 625 yards on 132 collective carries this year. Taylor operated with an expanded role in the previous season, rushing for over 1,000 rushing yards and serving as an effective option on Memphis’ frequent halfback screens.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State’s backfield runs four men deep, without a single one serving as the clear primary running back for most of the season. Toward the end of the year, Journey Brown snatched the spot and produced three 100-yard games and seven touchdowns in his last four contests. Around midseason, the Nittany Lions often lined up freshman Noah Cain in the backfield after he thrived in a “closer” role during the first stretch of the year. Cain surpassed the century mark against Purdue and Iowa, but he only has fielded one carry since November due to a lower-body injury. With time to heal, Cain should see playing time in Arlington, splitting carries with Brown — the team’s leading rusher.
Outside of Brown and Cain, running backs Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford each have over 40 rushing attempts this season. Slade was thought to be the primary tailback entering 2019, but his utilization has varied throughout the season, earning 4.9 touches per game. Ford registered 292 yards on nearly 6.0 yards per rush, showing strong potential as a freshman in the loaded backfield.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
White’s receiving core is fully loaded. Damonte Coxie is the veteran leader of the group, surpassing the 1,100-yard receiving barrier for the second-consecutive year. Coxie is a consistent, strong-armed deep threat wideout, earning over 18 yards per reception in five of his final six performances. Along with Coxie lines up utility player Antonio Gibson, a playmaker not only in the receiving game, but as a rusher and kick returner as well. Gibson intimidated teams into kicking pooch kicks this season with 28.8 yards per return (7th in the FBS). Offensively, he collected 636 receiving yards, 363 rushing yards, and 12 touchdowns from scrimmage — rushing for a team-high 130 with a 65-yard touchdown in the conference championship.
With 35 receptions this season, Kedarian Jones is Memphis’ other significant target, and just like the previous two wideouts, he frequently wins battles on deep balls. Next on the depth chart is Calvin Austin III, an impressive walk-on who was placed on scholarship in November after managing 276 receiving yards and three touchdowns this year. Jones and Austin may see increased roles in the offense, considering tight end Joey Magnifico will sit out the Cotton Bowl with a knee injury — a major blow to the team when factoring in his blocking ability and his 20 receptions this year.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The single-most important player on Penn State’s offense lines up at wide receiver, and he wears the #1 jersey. K.J. Hamler is the ultimate playmaker, a 5’9” wideout with turbo jets for speed and some of the best hands in the Big Ten. He recorded 858 yards receiving on 15.9 yards per catch and 646 yards as a return specialist this year, a consistent threat to break out for a touchdown at any time.
Clifford’s secondary option behind Hamler is the All-American tight end Pat Freiermuth. The 6’5” Freiermuth boxes opponents out like a basketball player on shorter routes and has the ability to catch leaping jump balls on longer throws. On 3rd and shorts, he’s the reliable option, especially considering how limited the wide receiver depth is behind Hamler. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson lines up opposite of Hamler, earning 462 yards on 24 receptions in 2019. With wide receiver Justin Shorter entering the transfer portal prior to bowl season, Dotson must step up in assisting the Penn State passing game against the 33rd-ranked passing defense in the FBS.
Memphis’ offensive line allowed 1.62 sacks per game this season, good for 34th in the FBS. The line will face a difficult assignment in Penn State’s pass rush, a unit which records sacks at a higher rate than all but nine teams in college football. Memphis didn’t notch a single lineman on the All-AAC teams, but the left side of the line — left tackle Obinna Eze and left guard Dylan Parham — have served the unit well all year long. They’ll match up with a likely first round pick in Yetur Gross-Matos (8.0 sacks in back-to-back seasons), preventing Penn State from infringing on Brady White’s territory.
Also, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage in this game is key for Memphis. Establishing the run is difficult against a team which permits fewer than 100 per contest, but if Memphis can assert its will in the trenches, Gainwell and Co. may perform well enough to cook up the perfect recipe for an upset.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State’s offensive line is spearheaded by senior left guard Steven Gonzalez, a Second Team All-Big Ten selection for his efforts this season. The Nittany Lions’ offensive line entered the year as a relatively inexperienced group after losing Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates to the NFL. Redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker takes care of Clifford’s blind side as the left tackle, while senior Will Fries stars as the right tackle. Penn State yields more than two sacks per game, but the unit excels in run blocking, allowing the Nittany Lions’ young backs to find success in the A and B gaps on their frequent up-the-middle runs.
Riley Patterson arguably deserved the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s best kicker. Patterson’s best work occurred in the American Conference Championship, nailing two 50+ yarders in the second half to lift Memphis past Cincinnati and into the Cotton Bowl. Patterson was money all year long, sinking 17/19 kicks and 6/7 from 40+. Memphis’ last bowl game, the 2018 Birmingham Bowl, came down to a difficult field goal, but Patterson couldn’t convert. He’s rebounded from that moment in a mature manner and could deliver Memphis crucial points in a close game given the season he’s had, especially considering the game transpires in an indoor arena.
Penn State Nittany Lions
James Franklin rotates between two kickers on special teams, one from short range and another for 50+ yard attempts. Jake Pinegar is the usual kicker, making 10/11 field goals this season — all from under 50 yards. For long-range attempts, Jordan Stout is the man. He’s 2/3 from farther than 50 this season, including a 57-yard attempt he drained at the end of the first half against Pitt. That stands as the longest field goal made by any kicker participating in this contest.