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2019 Cotton Bowl First Half Recap: Penn State leads Memphis 35-23

Penn State scores on four consecutive possessions to overcome Memphis’ hot start

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl Classic-Memphis vs Penn State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In the first edition of the 2019 New Year’s Six slate, it’s the Penn State Nittany Lions asserting their will. At halftime, Penn State leads the Memphis Tigers, 35-23 at the 84th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

The game opened up in favor of Memphis. After kicking off to Penn State to start the game, an energized Tigers’ defense held the Nittany Lions to one yard on a three-and-out. Memphis’ offense capitalized on the defensive stand, and utilized its skill position players to edge past the Penn State defense. Quarterback Brady White found his 1,100-yard receiver Damonte Coxie on an open 40-yard gain to invade Nittany Lion territory. Memphis had no problem moving the sticks until Penn State’s All-American outside linebacker blew up a reverse in the backfield for a loss of 10. The negative play set up a Riley Patterson field goal from 48 yards, and he improved to 90% on the season.

Penn State responded with an efficient 3-play drive. Sean Clifford opened up the passing game with an 11-yard screen to Jahan Dotson. Then, he found his high school teammate K.J. Hamler downfield for a 31-yard pickup. To cap the drive, running back Journey Brown bullied the Memphis defense on a 32-yard run resembling Marshawn lynch’s famous “Beast Quake” play. Brown’s display of physicality allowed Penn State to capture its first lead, a 7-3 advantage.

Memphis rebounded from the rough defensive sequence with a 2:12 scoring drive. On 3rd and 8, White heaved a ball while on the run and the pigskin found its way into the hands of Kedarian Jones. Jones defeated cornerback John Reid in 1-on-1 coverage to set Memphis up inside the red zone. The Tigers called Patrick Taylor Jr.’s number the rest of the way, and three carries later, the senior found himself in the end zone with his team ahead 10-7.

The Tigers defense shined once more, sacking Sean Clifford on back-to-back plays to force Penn State’s second three-and-out of the afternoon. Memphis’ offense hadn’t been stopped yet, and the Nittany Lions continued to miss tackles. Kenneth Gainwell directed the offense into the red zone, but a critical holding penalty stalled the once-promising possession. Facing a 2nd and 20 after the flag, Memphis’ offense couldn’t recover but Patterson chipped in another field goal to extend the lead to 13-7.

Then, Penn State woke up and out-physicaled the Tigers.

The momentum of the game completely shifted when Memphis shanked a 34-yard punt, setting the Nittany Lions up in Tiger territory. Penn State chipped away at the Tigers’ defense, piece by piece, and inched toward the goal-line on a 15-yard reception by K.J. Hamler, who utilized his speed on a screen to beat cornerback La’Andre Thomas around the end. Noah Cain reaped the benefits and rushed in the 2-yard go-ahead score to provide Penn State a 14-13 lead.

Penn State’s defense continued to dominate at the line of scrimmage after forcing Memphis’ first punt of the day. Two key plays which forced the Tigers’ next punt were sacks — one by an unblocked Parsons and another by defensive end and future NFL Draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos, who swung White to the ground using just one hand.

The Nittany Lions earned the benefit of another short field, courtesy of a 26-yard punt out of bounds by Memphis’ Adam Williams. Sean Clifford displayed some mobility on a 16-yard run, and then tight end Pat Freiermuth added to Penn State’s highlight reel with another truck-stick play. Freiermuth shed off a defender on a 19-yard catch-and-run, reaching the Memphis 2, and Devyn Ford punched it in for six on the ensuing play.

Another sub-40 punt for the Tigers created one more short field for James Franklin’s squad. This time, Penn State didn’t attack in a slow and methodical manner. Right away, the Nittany Lions’ offensive line opened a wide gap for Journey Brown, and the sophomore running back sprinted 56 yards untouched to widen the separation between the teams.

Trailing 28-13 after allowing three consecutive touchdowns, Memphis finally clicked on offense once more. The Tigers experienced success in the early going with home run shots, and White attempted another one to Coxie for 41 yards. Coxie hauled in a difficult catch in double coverage, placing Memphis in position for Gainwell to dive into the end zone on a 1-yard score.

To keep the game within one possession, Memphis needed another defensive stop before the half, but Penn State’s offensive line emerged victorious in the trenches once more. The Nittany Lions’ versatile backfield called on Ricky Slade this time, and Slade sprinted 44 yards into Memphis territory. With a plethora of short yardage plays, Penn State was able to pick up several first downs, and it scored on its fourth consecutive possession with a 4-yard tunnel screen to wide receiver Jahan Dotson.

Memphis finished the half with a 51-second scoring drive. Patterson sunk a 44-yard field goal at the first half buzzer, improving to 3/3 on the day and 20/22 on the season.

With a halftime score of Penn State 35, Memphis 23, the 58 combined points shattered a Cotton Bowl record of most collective first half points in the bowl’s 84-year history.