The Cotton Bowl between No. 17 Memphis and No. 10 Penn State was a barn burner between two offenses that got Saturday's bowl slate off to a great start. The Nittany Lions outlasted a feisty, Mike Norvell-less Tigers squad 53-39 behind a rushing attack that simply was too much for the Memphis defense.
Penn State ran for 391 yards behind a trio of big performances from their "Lawn Boys" -- Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Ricky Slade. Brown had the biggest day with 202 yards, but Cain added 92 yards and two touchdowns of his own, while Slade got in on the action with 58 yards on five carries.
With the win, Penn State now has three 11-win seasons in the past four years. Coach James Franklin has led this program to three New Year's Six bowl appearances, winning two. That's nothing at which to scoff. Memphis certainly gets credit for an incredible 12-win season, and it got off some huge chunk plays against a normally stout Nittany Lions defense. However, self-inflicted wounds ended up being the difference in the game.
Here's what else we learned from Saturday's Cotton Bowl.
Penn State's ground game could not be stopped: Well, except for one fourth-and-short stand by the Memphis defense. In fact, Penn State ended up 0 of 2 on fourth-down conversions for the day, but it hardly mattered. The Nittany Lions rushed for a season-high 396 yards on 53 attempts, an average of about 7.5 yards per carry. For reference, the previous high-water mark for rushing by a Penn State team in a bowl game was 351 in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl. Journey Brown led all runners with 202 yards and two touchdowns ... on just 16 carries. His first touchdown of the day, a bruising, tackle-breaking, grown-up run, set the tone for the day.
If you adjust for sacks, Penn State averaged 8.3 yards per rush, and for a good length of time in the game averaged more than 10 yards per rush. Shout out to the Penn State offensive line for truly winning on practically every single running play. Memphis had no answer for it with running backs often getting into the second level before being touched -- if they were touched at all. Frankly, the 20 passes thrown by Sean Clifford were about 19 too many.
Micah Parsons was the game's MVP: No, this wasn't an impenetrable unit, but Parsons stood out for Penn State's defense. The sophomore linebacker showed off why he was an All-American this year with 14 tackles, tying his season best. Three of those tackles went for a loss and he had two sacks, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hurry that led to a game-changing Brady White pick-six in the third quarter.
From the backfield to the open field and from sideline to sideline, Parsons was everywhere. He certainly didn't need this game to validate his stature as one of college football's best defenders, but it certainly didn't hurt. He's going to be one of the top names to watch for a bunch of individual awards next season. He'll also get all kinds of NFL draft buzz, too.
Memphis made too many mistakes: If you're going to spring the upset, you probably have to play as close to perfect as possible. Memphis did not play perfectly against Penn State. Now, the Tigers were good enough to overcome that -- to a degree. The offense is good enough to break off chunk yards through the air and the defense can get pressure on an opposing quarterback. The Tigers didn't get to 12 wins by accident.
However, Penn State showed it could do pretty much whatever it wanted against Memphis so long as it did what it was supposed to. Things came a little harder for the Tigers, and the plethora of mistakes and negative plays didn't make it any easier. Memphis had eight penalties (to Penn State's two) for 45 yards. They allowed six sacks, got picked off twice and found themselves behind the chains way too often. The end result was that the offense was oftentimes not able to finish drives with touchdowns. Kicker Riley Patterson had a huge day with six field goals -- a bowl record in any postseason game -- but he scored more points than the offense did. That can't happen.
It's easy to see why Memphis hired Ryan Silverfield: Some fans may wonder how this game would have turned out if Mike Norvell had still been coaching the Tigers instead of leaving early for Florida State. But Silverfield had a nice debut, even if the result didn't come out like he had hoped. Memphis wasn't really out-coached, it just couldn't stop the run and was getting bowled over by Penn State's superior athletes in the open field. That's not coaching, that's a talent disparity.
Silverfield had a good game plan. The Tigers tried a few trick plays to keep Penn State's defense off balance, and most of them worked. They got a productive day out of the passing game with White eclipsing 400 yards and Damonte Coxie, Kenneth Gainwell and Antonio Gibson all having big days catching the ball. Gainwell and Patrick Taylor also contributed with a pair of rushing touchdowns. Situationally, Memphis came out of the second half and immediately scored a touchdown on its opening drive. That was part of a 10-point swing in the first five minutes of that quarter.
Silverfield has a long way to go in proving himself as a coach. He's held a lot of assistant jobs and has never served as a coordinator. But his team played hard for him, and he put them in a situation to keep pace with a superior opponent.