Penn State didn't get off to the hottest start, but once the Nittany Lions got roaring, they didn't stop.
The Lions' running backs combined for five touchdowns, and the defense picked up the intensity in the fourth quarter, helping Penn State earn a 53-39 win over Memphis in the 2019 Cotton Bowl.
Journey Brown led all Penn State rushers with 202 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Noah Cain and Devyn Ford also got into the end zone, helping the Lions set a school record for rushing yards in a bowl game (396). Quarterback Sean Clifford accounted for 133 yards through the air.
The defense was led by a dominant effort from Micah Parsons off the edge. The sophomore has arguably cemented his status as the best linebacker in the country for the 2020 season, finishing with 15 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
Penn State has won 11 games in three of the last four seasons for the first time since 1968-1971.
QB Sean Clifford: 11-of-20, 133 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT
RB Journey Brown: 16 CAR, 202 YDS, 2 TD (2 REC, 7 YDS)
RB Noah Cain: 15 CAR, 92 YDS, 2 TD
WR KJ Hamler: 2 REC, 46 YDS (2 CAR, 14 YDS)
TE Pat Freiermuth: 2 REC, 39 YDS
QB Brady White: 32-of-51, 454 YDS, 2 INT
WR Damonte Coxie: 8 REC, 132 YDS
Penn State Enters 2020 as Legit Title Contender
Sean Clifford: sophomore
Journey Brown: sophomore
Ricky Slade: sophomore
Noah Cain: freshman
Micah Parsons: sophomore
Pat Freiermuth: sophomore
We can keep going, but this Penn State roster is loaded with talent heading into 2020. If anything, this 11-2 season is an overachievement given the relative inexperience of the roster and is evidence of how much this group can ascend with another year of together.
KJ Hamler has likely played his last contest in a Penn State uniform, so the Lions will have to find an explosive downfield playmaker in the passing game. But Penn State will enter next season with arguably the best ground attack in the nation, a world-beating linebacker who could be the No. 1 overall pick and a tight end garnering Rob Gronkowski comparisons.
That alone is enough to make Penn State a preseason Top Five team, and the schedule plays out in the Nittany Lions' favor. Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State and Maryland all visit Happy Valley. Their lone road tests are trips to Michigan and Virginia Tech, both difficult but winnable games.
Penn State may have found its offensive identity for next season Saturday. The Lions pounded the ball on the ground 53 times to the tune of 396 yards, taking advantage of their deep stable of backs to gash the Memphis defense while keeping everyone fresh.
Clifford will need to make strides as a passer next season—his third-quarter interception was one of his worst throws of the year—but he has a strong arm and is enough of a threat with his legs that Penn State can compete with the nation's best teams if he's merely above average.
This is a roster loaded with NFL talent. It's on James Franklin to coach up the group to avoid disappointment in what could be his best chance to win a national title in Happy Valley.
Memphis Has Bright Future Despite Loss
Ryan Silverfield's first game as a head coach was a loss, but his players clearly believed in him and never stopped pushing until the final whistle. There were times Memphis could have folded under the pressure of playing against a vastly more talented team, particularly after Penn State spent the entire quarter puncturing the run defense.
It never happened.
Memphis continued battling, pulling within two points and held most of the momentum in the third quarter before a pair of Brady White interceptions sealed the game for Penn State. The Tigers have reeled off six straight winning seasons and set a school record for victories in 2019 with 12.
Mike Norvell left the program in solid shape before he moved to Florida State. White has two seasons of eligibility remaining after being granted a medical sixth year by the NCAA. Do-everything running back Kenneth Gainwell is only a freshman and went over 2,000 total yards of offense Saturday.
Memphis should be considered the best non-Power Five team in the nation next season (non-Notre Dame division) and be a favorite for another New Year's Six appearance.