The 2019 season came to a fitting end in late December with Penn State out-gunning AAC conference champion Memphis 53-39. Penn State finished the season with 11 wins for the third time in its last four and captured its second NY6 bowl victory under James Franklin. All year, the Nittany Lions defied the odds and seemed willing to play (and usually beat) its opponent at its own game. The Lions knew Memphis could throw the ball and would have success doing so, but it seems unlikely that the coaching staff would be content to yield over 450 yards through the air and expect to win. Still, the big names came through all game long for Penn State, with freshly-minted First Team All-American LB Micah Parsons forcing the pick-six to S Garrett Taylor that ultimately put the game away. The Tigers proved a worthy opponent, but Penn State flexed its muscle and wore the Memphis defense down. Below are the grades from the Lions’ statement Cotton Bowl win.
LB Micah Parsons
Parsons played his best game of the season, becoming a one-man wrecking crew. He led the game with 14 tackles, which includes 2 sacks with 3 tackles for loss and two passes defended. His play set the tone for a clutch defense that made the plays it needed to when Memphis tried to overtake the Lions.
A bizarre game saw the defense give up season highs in passing yards and points, and though Penn State never relinquished its second-quarter lead, it seemed for a time in the third quarter that Memphis had out-adjusted Penn State at halftime. CB John Reid, in his last game, had an excellent performance after struggling throughout the year. But the pass coverage was picked apart by Tiger QB Brady White for most of the game. The defense bent but did not break against Memphis, though, as the unit shut down the Tiger running game and held them under 50% on third down conversions to force field goals on 6 drives. The defense intercepted White twice (scoring on the first) and nearly had two others. When the defense needed a play, the stars and seniors delivered.
The coverage held the Tiger returners in check, and K Jake Pinegar converted his field goal attempt and all six extra points. P Blake Gillikin, in his final game in Blue and White, pinned Memphis inside its 20 on 2 of 3 punts and bombed a field-flipping 59-yarder on the other. The kick coverage was solid all year, and Pinegar ironed out his inconsistencies from 2018 to be a reliable scorer all year.
P Blake Gillikin
Always unheralded, punters have a critical impact on the game. Gillikin’s athleticism to unleash 60+ yard punts coupled with his knack for pinning the opposition deep put the defense in position to be successful throughout his four years. He’ll be greatly missed in Happy Valley, and turned in a classic performance in limited action in this shootout, where Memphis failing to hold serve proved to be the backbreaker.
RB Journey Brown
Brown’s play reminded me of RB Tony Hunt’s performance against Tennessee in the 2006-7 Outback Bowl. Dominant, punishing, and bruising all characterized the way Brown ran against the Tigers. He added breakaway speed to Hunt’s running style and finished with 202 yards and 2 TDs on 12.6 yards per carry. Brown’s best game of the year gives plenty of reason for optimism for the Nittany Lions’ running game entering 2020.
On the one hand, dropped passes and inaccurate throws plagued the Nittany Lions’ offense again. On the other, the stars made plays when they had to, and the running game looked unstoppable from the opening kick. QB Sean Clifford, returning from a leg injury, had a higher QBR than Brady White and added 28 rushing yards to his 133-yard passing total. WR KJ Hamler and TE Pat Freiermuth again led the team in receiving, but this game was all about the running game. The offensive line had trouble at times with the Memphis pass rush, but the line cleared the way for RB Journey Brown and the backs all day. The running backs ripped off runs of 56, 44, and 32 yards. In a game in which Penn State honored pioneer Wally Tripplett, the Lions leaned on a run game that would have made its old halfback proud.
The running back committee worked to perfection, with Brown leading the way, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford hammering away in short-yardage and the second half, and RB Ricky Slade provided bursts to extend Penn State drives late in the game. Putting the “power” in Power 5, Penn State’s run game was the difference and salted the game away with a two-touchdown lead.
This grade might be a bit harsh, as Penn State doubled the spread. But several questionable decisions made this game closer than it should have been. HC James Franklin used 2 timeouts at the end of the first half that allowed Memphis to get a field goal. The offense, taking the field in the third quarter after seeing a 15-point lead shrink to 5, came out throwing (badly). This strategy culminated in an interception that led to 3 more points for the Tigers, thanks to the defense. I think all of Twitter was screaming, “Why aren’t they running the ball!?” simultaneously.
Still, the gameplan was sound. Since the end of the regular season, Penn State had to navigate an extension to Franklin, former OC Ricky Rahne’s departure, breaking in an interim play-caller in TE coach Tyler Bowen, and the interview and hire of a new OC (Minnesota’s former OC Kirk Ciarrocca). To do all that and still put up 53 on Memphis is a testament to the program and the win-now-while-preparing-for-the-future balance that James Franklin has done so well since arriving in State College.
There is no question that Penn State overachieved in 2019, and took a significant step toward becoming elite and being able to reload when top-shelf talent departs. For some reason, many fans still seem to think that Penn State should remove Franklin in favor of Matt Ruhle, or other similar flavor-of-the-month. Ruhle is a terrific coach, but I struggle to think he or anyone not named Saban or Swinney could have brought in the level of talent Franklin has while steadily improving the on-field product.
Two external factors give big reasons for added optimism heading into the offseason: 1) Ciarrocca did wonders with Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan; a full offseason of prep with Clifford should lead to significant development in Clifford’s second year as a starter. 2) LSU beat Group of 5 best UCF in a hard-fought Fiesta Bowl last year. If those factors are any indication, Penn State should be in prime position for a serious run at the CFP in 2020.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn