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Cotton Bowl Media Day: Penn State players and coaches preview Memphis

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James Franklin and the Nittany Lions are prepared for Memphis’ risk-taking in the special teams game as well as the Tigers’ explosive players on offense.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Memphis Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State jump-started its football program in 1887. Just 25 years later, Memphis followed suit and established theirs. Despite sharing a place in the game for over a century, the Nittany Lions and Tigers have never clawed at each other on the gridiron, but that will change Saturday. The campuses are separated by 900 miles, but that separation has seemingly decreased in the month of December as the programs have studied each other’s every move — awaiting the 84th edition of the anticipated Goodyear Cotton Bowl.

“This is the biggest game in Memphis football history, in my opinion,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “New Year’s Six bowl game, all those types of things. We’ve discussed that. We’ve talked about that. I think mentality in bowl games is critical. Again, that goes back to the healthy respect that we have for our opponent... but we better be ready for a dog fight.”

Memphis’ offense is well equipped for a dog fight, even with Penn State’s elite defense. The Tigers are eighth in the country in scoring offense and belong in a select group of programs that average more than 40 points per game. Memphis exhibits great balance, excelling with a top 35 rushing game and a top 30 passing game in the FBS — good for 10th overall in average yards produced.

“They have a lot of skill players that can make plays at running back, the receivers. Honestly, everyone on that offense can make plays,” outside linebacker Cam Brown said. “Our task is gonna be stopping them in all aspects of the game, from stopping the run — our staple — to stopping them in the pass and getting them in 3rd and long situations where they’ll be a little less comfortable.”

When noticing the Memphis Tigers, the first thing that sticks out is the skill position players. Quarterback Brady White is one of five finalists for the Manning Award and ranks in the top 12 of the FBS in passing yards and passing touchdowns.

Running back Kenneth Gainwell produced over 1,400 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in his freshman campaign, continuing on the legacy of the team’s 2018 All-American halfback Darrell Henderson.

“To stop them, we’re gonna try and not let them score,” All-American outside linebacker Micah Parsons said. “Obviously, we’re gonna face a lot of challenges, but I think we got enough experience in this group where we’ll be okay. We also played the Ohio States, the Michigans, the Minnesotas where we faced things similar, so I think we have enough experience in the room where we can play against this explosive team.”

Wide receivers Damonte Coxie and Antonio Gibson are also downfield playmakers Penn State’s secondary must keep an eye on. While Coxie tore up opposing defenses with over 1,100 receiving yards this season, Gibson bolstered Memphis in a multitude of areas — as a deep threat, as a running back, and as a return specialist.

“They’ve got a lot of explosive guys. They have a bunch of dudes who can get the ball in space and make plays,” cornerback John Reid said. “Each of their receivers are able to hop in the slot and play, and that’s really unique. Usually, there are only one or two guys that can play in the slot in the receiving corps, but they have a bunch of guys — even No. 10 (Coxie, 6’3” receiver) is able to hop in the slot as a bigger guy.

(Gibson) can run the ball, he can catch it, he can do kickoff returns. He’s really dynamic. They can put him anywhere, and he can do his thing. He has speed and he’s got good size too, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he lined up at running back a little bit.”

Memphis also frequents halfback screens and sometimes utilizes Gainwell as a deep threat, which can catch opposing secondaries off-guard. Gainwell ranked second on the Tigers with 44 receptions this year, averaging an impressive 12.1 yards per catch out of the backfield. With versatile, interchangeable running backs and wide receivers such as Gainwell and Gibson, the Tigers present challenges many college football teams aren’t accustomed to defending.

“They do a lot of schemes that really aren’t seen very often, so you’ve gotta stay disclipined, stay on your man, and follow the key to the ball,” defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said.

Memphis’ defense has been the downfall of past New Year’s Six contending Tigers teams, but the unit has amended many of its issues this season. The Tigers rose from the 94th to the 46th ranked scoring defense from 2018 to 2019 and they allow just a hair over 200 passing yards per game. Memphis’ pass rush, led by defensive end Bryce Huff (6.0 sacks) and defensive tackle Joseph Dorceus (5.0 sacks) has stepped up to the occasion to average 2.46 sacks per contest this year. Penn State’s offensive line is prepared for some of the challenging looks Huff and Co. may produce for the Nittany Lions’ front five.

“We’re just gonna try to run the ball as best we can. They do a lot of movements and they do a lot of blitzing, so we’ve been practicing their looks all week,” All-Big Ten guard Steven Gonzalez said. “We’re just gonna try to counteract what they give us. We have plans — what kind of blitzes, what kind of stunts and movements they have for us. It’s gonna be a good game, they’re a really well coached team.”

The primary connecting link between the two programs is Penn State special teams coach Joe Lorig. Lorig is familiar with many members of the Tigers’ roster, serving as the team’s special teams and outside linebackers coach for three seasons from 2016-18.

“They’ve had a history of strong culture on special teams for a while,” Franklin said. “When Coach Lorig was there, that has continued. After Coach Lorig has left, Coach (Pete) Lembo has done a nice job.”

Even after Lorig’s departure, Memphis’ special teams is one of the best units in the country. Kicker Riley Patterson was named a Lou Groza finalist after finishing the season 17/19 on field goals, including 6/7 from 40+ yards. The Tigers led the entire country in kickoff return yardage and were one of three FBS teams to field three kicks and take them to the house for touchdowns.

“I think we have to be ready in this game for them to take some risks,” Franklin said. “We saw it in the biggest game maybe in program history in the conference championship against Cincinnati. They started the game with a popover onside kick. I think that’s how they’re wired. And I also could see them doing those things against us.”