(KDKA)- After dipping down to nine wins last season, the Penn State program is back at the 10-win mark this year under James Franklin, despite massive turnover on the offensive side of the ball.
That accomplishment, paired with being in the conversation for a potential College Football Playoff spot and being mentioned for several coaching vacancies earned James Franklin a shiny new contract extension. With that bit of business out of the way, the Nittany Lions now prepare for a New Year's Six bowl matchup against this year's best Group of 5 team, the Memphis Tigers.
Bowl games have been somewhat of a bugaboo for Franklin in Happy Valley, as the team is just 2-3 in his tenure and losers of three of their last four. KDKA sports anchor Rich Walsh notes that Franklin and the team are "excited about going back there and winning another game." The last time that Penn State appeared in the Cotton Bowl was in 1974 when they beat Baylor 41-20. A win here would give Franklin his third 11-win season since joining the program and the third in four years.
The biggest question mark entering the game is at quarterback where starter Sean Clifford has been dealing with a leg injury since the team's matchup against Ohio State. Walsh says that Clifford should be "ready to go," but Clifford is still listed as questionable for the moment. If he can't go, sophomore Will Levis will get the start.
Whoever is under center will be operating with a new offensive coordinator, as Ricky Rahne has departed to become the new head coach at Old Dominion. It shouldn't affect the bowl game too much, but a new play caller could mean a different rhythm to the offense and an unfamiliar play-calling style for the team to get used to.
The good news is, as of this writing, the team should have its full complement of weapons on that side of the ball. The only skill position player currently in danger of missing the game is running back Ricky Slade, who is dealing with a "disciplinary issue." But, outside of Slade, everyone else should be available for a Lions offense that averaged 5.5 yards per play and over 34 points per game this season. The biggest question against Memphis' defense will be how the Lions handle third downs. The Tigers have been strong on that front, allowing opponents to convert just 38.6% of third-down attempts. The Lions have struggled with third downs throughout the year, though they got better in the second half of the season and improved to a 43% conversion rate.
On defense, the biggest player that Penn State will need to focus on is running back Kenneth Gainwell. The redshirt freshman has touched the ball a whopping 266 times this season between the running and passing game. On those touches, he has totaled 1,957 yards and 15 touchdowns. Gainwell is far from the only weapon, however. Quarterback Brady White has thrown for over 3,500 yards and 35 touchdowns this season, and he has a top target on the outside in Damonte Coxie (68 receptions 1,144 yards 9 TDs). The Tigers offense has averaged 6.9 yards per play and over 40 points per game this season.
Stopping them is not easy. But Penn State has some of the talent to do it, allowing just 4.6 yards per play and allowing just 14 points per game. And, though defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos has declared for the NFL Draft, he says that he will still play in the bowl game. The biggest trouble spot is the secondary defending against Coxie. In the Minnesota and Ohio State losses, the Nittany Lions secondary got exposed. Granted, Coxie and the rest of the Tigers receivers are not of the same caliber as those opponents, but still it is a concern.
Nonetheless, Walsh is going with Penn State, simply because they have faced better competition this year.
"I have to go with the bigger school, Penn State. Plus it's almost like a hometown pick here, but I think Penn State wins this game against Memphis. I'm excited to watch this game, I'm curious about how good Memphis really is," said Walsh. "We have seen Penn State play really good teams this year. I still think my edge would be Penn State, plays in the Big Ten so I'm going to go with Penn State."
Vegas agrees with Penn State listed as 6.5-point favorites as of this writing and an over/under line set at 60.5. Kick-off for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic is set for Saturday, December 28th at 12:00 p.m. EST.
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