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Penn State rushing attack edges Memphis, 53-39, in exhilarating Cotton Bowl shootout

Penn State dominates on the ground with 396 rushing yards and 5 rushing scores against Memphis in the Tigers’ first NY6 bowl.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Memphis v Penn State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There’s an aura felt on the turf of a New Year’s Six bowl, a feeling many Memphis faithful experienced for the first time. Underneath the 218 x 94.6 foot video board at the world-famous AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, the Tigers stormed onto the field for a monumental occasion in the program’s history, in hopes of capping off a wildly successful decade with a statement victory.

Tiger fans showed up in droves of blue and occupied more than half of the 55,000 onlookers, surprisingly outnumbering Penn State and the largest living alumni base in the world. But when the confetti cleared and the glimmering Cotton Bowl trophy was raised to the sky, a darker shade of blue remained celebrating. The Nittany Lions (11-2) edged Memphis (12-2) in the 84th edition of the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in a thrilling 53-39 shootout, dampening the finish to an otherwise spectacular Tigers season.

“Wasn’t happy with the end result,” head coach Ryan Silverfield said. “We’ll never be satisfied with losses. Like I just got done telling the young men in the locker room, they battled. They gave it every single thing they had, every play for 60 minutes and didn’t once have any fret, fear. They fought and I’m proud of that.”

Offensive records were shattered left and right in a game which featured 92 total points and 1,071 yards of total offense. Memphis picked apart Penn State’s secondary through the air as quarterback Brady White collected a career-high 454 passing yards in the contest (second highest in New Year’s Six bowl in the College Football Playoff era). Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions showcased an unstoppable rushing game, attaining 396 yards and 7.5 yards per carry en route to five rushing touchdowns. The game featured the most points in a first half of any New Year’s Six game, and the absurdity of points still continued into the game’s final 30 minutes.

“I don’t care about performances... I care about wins,” White said after his career-game. “But that’s what I love about football, man. It’s not about individuals. It’s about the entire team. And I guess the stats are bonuses, which is great, but I want to win.”

With a revamped coaching staff after head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller departed to Florida State, Memphis’ newly appointed Silverfield experienced his first game at the helm. The Tigers featured new offensive and defensive play-callers in a game in which the Tigers experienced no shortage of offensive success but suffered several lapses on defense.

Memphis succeeded in the early sequences on both sides of the ball, jumping out to a 13-7 lead. White completed passes of 40 and 56 yards on his first two possessions to set the Tigers in scoring territory. Memphis’ wide receivers exposed Penn State’s zone coverage, but the Nittany Lions held firm and allowed only one touchdown on the Tigers’ three entries to the red zone.

But once Penn State’s defense entered the equation, the Nittany Lions began taking over the game on both sides of the ball. Outside linebacker Micah Parsons was named the Defensive MVP for his 14 tackles, 2.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, and two pass breakups, and he continued to apply pressure, forcing Memphis punts. The Tigers gave the Nittany Lions short field on three consecutive second quarter possessions after shanked punts (an average of 33 yards per punt), allowing Penn State to establish the offense. Penn State scored on all three of those drives and finished the first half with four consecutive touchdown drives to claim a high-scoring 35-23 halftime lead.

“At least two or three times, we started around the 50-yard line, so that helps a lot,” Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford said on winning the second quarter field position battle. “When you’re backed up, you can ask any offense in the country, it’s not as fun as when you’re in front of the end zone. Our defense did a great job today and gave us a chance.”

Penn State’s running back Journey Brown was named Offensive MVP and served as the tone setter in the Cotton Bowl. He shattered Saquon Barkley’s Nittany Lion bowl record with 203 rushing yards, scoring pivotal first half touchdowns to bolster Penn State’s offense. His first run mirrored Marshawn Lynch’s famous “Beast Quake” carry, shedding three Memphis defenders and carrying the final one into the end zone on a 32-yard explosion — Penn State’s first score of the day.

“I feel like just the line up front, those big boys, they really set the tone,” Brown said. “We said coming into this game, we want to control the pace. We want to go fast, we’ll go fast. If we want to go slow, we’ll go slow. With the wide receivers and tight ends blocking, the edges opened up for what I could do, so kudos goes to them for sure.”

His second touchdown helped separate the teams in the second half, allowing Penn State to claim the first multi-score lead of the contest (28-13) on a play where the offensive line cleared an avenue for Brown to sprint untouched on a 56-yard carry.

“All you guys could have scored on that one — it was beautiful,” Brown said to reporters on his second score of the afternoon. “You could have fit dang near the whole (Goodyear) blimp through that thing, so it was an easy run for me.”

But it wasn’t just Brown spearheading the rushing effort for the Nittany Lions, which edged Memphis 396-63 in the ground department. Running back Noah Cain complemented his 92-yard outing with a pair of touchdowns, and Ricky Slade rattled off several long carries for 58 yards on five rushing attempts. Penn State’s running backs shed tackle after tackle while the offensive line asserted its dominance to the point where the Nittany Lions accumulated 53 points without much passing production — 133 passing yards at an 11/20 completion rate.

“Our room could have gone sideways quick if one guy was pouting because he wanted more touches, but everyone stayed positive,” Cain said. “Coach does a great job getting all of us touches to where we can make plays and that is all you can ask for.”

Penn State scored 28 points in less than an 11-minute span in the second quarter, but Memphis still demonstrated its resiliency despite a 15-point deficit. In the waning seconds of the first half, kicker Riley Patterson nailed a 44-yard field goal. Then, the Tigers utilized a series of screen passes near the sidelines and a Philly Special trick play to approach the Penn State goal line. After White caught a 25-yard reception from Kedarian Jones, he punched it in from the 1-yard line to slice the deficit to one possession.

Memphis’ offense continued to excel through the air, and the Tigers featured four receivers with over 70 yards in the contest — all recipients of a pass that racked up 30 or more yards. Damonte Coxie led the group with 132 on eight catches, but running back Kenneth Gainwell also shined with 78 receiving yards and over 100 yards from scrimmage. Antonio Gibson added 99 and Jones captured 73, providing headaches to the Penn State secondary from start to finish. Memphis’ 39 points against Penn State’s defense were the most the Nittany Lions allowed all season.

“Just putting the speed on them, I don’t think they played at that fast of a pace all year,” Gibson said. “For us to come in and put the speed on them, I think we tired them out a couple times and we got moving, and they couldn’t keep up. I feel like that’s how we stayed in the game.”

In need of a defensive stop, Memphis executed. The first turnover of the game was Clifford’s errant pass to the flat, as Memphis inside linebacker Austin Hall dove to secure an interception and establish a new possession inside Penn State’s 30-yard line.

“They had (wide receiver K.J. Hamler) in the slot in the boundary, and based off film, it’s called an Ohio route,” Hall said, recalling the play. “I just read it before the snap ever came and I kind of jumped it. Threw it a little low, had to cradle it, and had to make a play for our offense to get the ball back. Think we could have had a little more of those.”

But once again, the Nittany Lion defense didn’t break and held the Tigers to a field goal. Patterson was tremendous in the kicking game, setting a new bowl record with six successful field goals on six attempts. Overall, he totaled a bowl record 21 points scored by a kicker, and also hit a 51-yard field goal — the longest kick in Cotton Bowl history. Five of Patterson’s six field goals originated from more than 40 yards and his reliability kept Memphis’ mission alive in the shootout.

“Our special teams have been dominant all season, and I think that’s one of the back bones of this football team,” Patterson said. “But obviously wanted some of those field goals to be touchdowns. It is what it is. I’m happy that we were able to make those field goals, but obviously we want to win the game, and yeah, pretty upset about that right now.”

When Patterson’s kick after the interception cut the Penn State advantage to 38-36, the defense provided the offense a golden opportunity by forcing a punt. Then, the most pivotal sequence of the Cotton Bowl ensued. Parsons proved why he was the best player on the field Saturday by blitzing past Memphis’ line and wrapping up White in the backfield. As White fell to the ground, he tossed the ball and it was intercepted by free safety Garrett Taylor, who waltzed easily into the end zone to widen the gap to 45-36.

“We had a great blitz call,” Taylor said on the pivotal play, in his final collegiate game. “Micah twisted and got to the quarterback like he was doing all game, had him wrapped up, (White) made a bad decision, and close to the play, he put the ball up in the air. I came down with it, took it to the end zone, and put points up on the board to swing the momentum and change the game.”

Memphis managed another field goal to remain in the running for an elusive New Year’s Six victory, but Penn State’s physicality in the trenches overpowered the Tigers’ defense. Cain was the recipient of six-straight carries on a drive when Memphis needed a critical defensive stand. Cain’s final handoff wound up as a touchdown, and Penn State pulled ahead, 53-39, on a 2-point conversion from Clifford to tight end Pat Freiermuth with 6:31 remaining in the game.

“It was very up pace,” Clifford said on the offensive tempo which succeeded against Memphis in the final three quarters. “We were moving the ball a lot with the run game, and that made the tempo easy — getting calls in quick, IDing backrest real fast. Because they were bringing so much pressure, when we went high speed tempo, they couldn't really check out of stuff.”

Victory was a long shot for Memphis at that point, but the Tigers’ offense still unleashed a valiant effort, invading Penn State’s red zone after four plays from scrimmage. But White threw his second interception of the day to Marquis Wilson, and the Nittany Lions escaped Arlington in celebration with a second New Year’s Six victory in three years. Penn State will finish the season with a likely top 10 ranking and 11 wins for the the third time in four seasons, becoming the first program to defeat a Group of Five team by double-digits in a New Year’s Six bowl.

“I’m proud of the program that we have built,” Franklin said. “And this is something that’s very important. At Penn State, it’s not just winning, it’s how you win... There are no shortcuts. It’s being great in the classroom. It’s being great in the community. And then it’s also getting on the football field and competing in New Year’s Six bowl games against the very best competition and talent in the country.”

Heartbreak arose from the Memphis sideline, as a spectacular 2019 season concluded in a tough-fought loss, rather than the most iconic win in program history. Still, after a 12-2 campaign and a first-ever American Conference championship, Memphis embraces what the future beholds under Coach Silverfield.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s gonna get this program to continue to grow, continue to build, and continue to have that standard of working hard and being excellent on and off the field,” departing senior defensive end Bryce Huff said regarding the future of Silverfield’s program. “There’s no doubt in my mind this program’s gonna go to the sky and beyond.”

Despite a bitter result in Arlington, Memphis will continue to view a 2019 that featured many historic firsts (first New Year’s Six bowl, first AAC title, first College GameDay appearance), a resounding success.

“A lot to be proud of, a lot of records broken, a lot of guys had single, individual records,” Silverfield said. “I told our guys, hold your heads up high. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Obviously, we have got a bad taste in our mouth right now. I don’t want anybody getting on our plane with their eyes down not being proud of what they are.”