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The Aftermath: Reliving Memphis’ Cotton Bowl experience

In front of a thunderous crowd of Tiger blue, Memphis falls short in the final chapter of its best season yet.

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

Saturday, December 28, 2019, is currently the most important day in the history of the Memphis Tigers’ program. Despite a 53-39 loss to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, the Tigers remained competitive with their Big Ten opponent throughout the contest in front of a raucous Memphis crowd at the world-famous AT&T Stadium. Memphis led 13-7 entering the second quarter and possessed the ball down six in the final minutes of the third quarter, before a pick-six swung the momentum to Penn State for the remainder of the afternoon.

While 2019 didn’t finish the way Memphis faithful hoped, there were many positives to take away from the Tigers’ first-ever appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl.

Memphis packs Jerry World

It’s slightly longer than a 7-hour drive from the southwest corner of Tennessee to the heart of the Dallas metroplex, but Memphis fans weren’t going to let any distance stand between them and the most significant game in program history. When the Nittany Lions and Tigers emerged from their respective tunnels at AT&T Stadium, the majority of the 55,000-member crowd was engulfed in Memphis’ brighter shade of blue, distinctly contrasting from Penn State’s organized “Whiteout.”

“I was just thanking them because I know I touched on it earlier this week with the media, I mean, it’s the holidays, we’re traveling. And that was a pretty impressive turnout,” quarterback Brady White said. “Talk about this entire season, Memphis has shown up, not just our program but the city and our fans. And it was awesome to run into that stadium and see a bunch of blue. So I was just thanking them because that really means a lot to me as a player, and I think that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

Memphis fans made it clear they wanted to be present to watch the historical season. The Tiger faithful packed Beale Street for a College GameDay appearance on November 2 before setting an American Conference attendance record of 59,506 at the Liberty Bowl to watch Memphis upend SMU, 54-46. The high attendance figures continued through the end, as the Tigers occupied over half of the lower deck while battling the university with the largest living alumni base in the world.

“I kind of shocked me when I first walked out because Penn State’s fanbase is crazy, and to see that we had more Memphis fans is kind of shocking,” wide receiver Antonio Gibson said. “I was just like, man, they really support us — the alumni, the fans, the hometown, and the 901 is just a different type of vibe.”

Tigers offense lives up to challenge vs. Penn State

Memphis’ uptempo, explosive play-oriented offense ran opponents off the field all season long. The Tigers knew they were in for a challenge in Arlington pitted against one of the top 10 scoring defenses of the season. Penn State held all 12 regular season opponents to 31 or fewer points and the Nittany Lions were the only regular season opponent to limit Ohio State’s historic offense to under 30 points.

Memphis still looked like Memphis against the Nittany Lions. In fact, in the passing game, the Tigers were absurdly more effective. Brady White set a new career-high in passing yards by issuing 454 against the Penn State secondary. White’s wideouts displayed top-tier route running and found openings in the Nittany Lions’ zone defense throughout the afternoon. White completed five passes of 30 yards or greater to four different receivers and didn’t shy away from the deep ball — which was often effective.

“All week, we already knew what the gameplan was,” wide receiver Damonte Coxie (8 receptions, 132 yards) said. “(White) told me he was gonna throw it to me, he was gonna trust me with it, and I told him I was gonna go get it for him. We practiced it all the time, so preparation... it comes out.”

Deep shots to Coxie and wide receiver Kedarian Jones helped Memphis jump out in front early, claiming a 13-7 lead with a chance to extend it to multiple possessions in the second quarter. Even when Penn State gained control, Memphis’ passing success never wavered, continuing to assert its will against the opposing secondary.

“I’ve got to give it to Memphis,” Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford said. “They’ve got a hell of a program. They did a great job in this bowl game, and they’ve got a great future because of that coach and those players. I was just telling the quarterback (Brady White) how explosive their offense was, and they’re a very impressive team, so I think they’ve got a great future.”

The Ryan Silverfield era begins

The odds were stacked against Memphis heading into the Cotton Bowl, as the Tigers were forced to construct a gameplan against a top 10 program without the luxury of their typical offensive and defensive play-callers. Head coach Mike Norvell and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller previously held those positions, but both coaches left to pursue the same jobs at Florida State.

Offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield was named the interim coach on December 8, and five days later, the head coach for the 2020 season. Silverfield’s team remained competitive with the Nittany Lions in his first game, but the Cotton Bowl still proved to be a learning experience for the future face of Memphis.

“We’ve got to do a better job. It’s always going to start with me,” Silverfield said. “I’ll never be satisfied with a loss and the ups and downs. And, again, it starts with me coaching the offensive line. As of right now, I’m officially firing Memphis’ offensive line coach. He’s done with the offensive line. And, hopefully, he’ll assist with it but that’s my first staff change moving forward.”

Silverfield planned to keep Memphis’ identity standing tall throughout the chaos of the coaching changes. With first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Johns stepping into the play-calling role on offense, the Tigers out-gained Penn State in the yardage department, enjoyed their most prolific passing game of the season, and set a season-high 39 points scored against the Nittany Lion defense.

“The quarterback did a wonderful job,” Silverfield said. “The tight ends, the running back, the wide receivers, give a lot of credit to Kevin Johns calling a wonderful game. Our staff, they worked diligently these last two weeks to make sure the offense was rolling the right direction.”

Even though the Tigers couldn’t triumph in Arlington, the Memphis players remain grateful for the experience of playing in a premier New Year’s Six bowl after an entire season in college football’s limelight.

“I really wanted to bring that back to the city of Memphis,” Gibson said. “We’re blessed to be here at the end of the day. Everyone had us down, but we thought we could win, and we fought like it. Just to be here, is a blessing, coming through everything I went through. The bond is unreal, it’s always love — offense, defense — there’s no separation in between.”