by Nathan Rush
Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas
The first-ever Big Ten vs. Conference USA postseason matchup is a surreal pairing of two teams in the middle of downward spirals — albeit of decidedly different natures — led by interim head coaches.
Houston is hung over after having its BCS bowl dreams dashed and undefeated season ruined by Southern Miss during a 49–28 loss in the Conference USA title game. Then, Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, who was 35–17 in four seasons at UH, left to take the Texas A&M job. Special teams coordinator, inside-receivers and tight ends coach Tony Levine will take over the top spot for the TicketCity Bowl. But make no mistake, the Coogs will rely heavily on the leadership of record-breaking sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum, who will be making the final start of an historic career.
On the other side, no one is smiling in Happy Valley these days, following the disgraceful exit of iconic coach Joe Paterno and disgusting criminal charges of child abuse filed against JoePa’s longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. In the wake of the shocking scandal, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over as interim coach, posting a 1–2 record — losing to Nebraska (17–14), winning at Ohio State (20–14) and getting blown out at Wisconsin (45–7) in the regular season finale.
WHEN HOUSTON HAS THE BALL:
The Cougars’ high-octane attack ranks No. 1 in total offense (599.0 ypg), passing (443.8 ypg) and scoring (50.8 ppg).
Keenum orchestrates Houston’s scoreboard fireworks display; but the signal-caller has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Receivers Patrick Edwards (1,524 yards, 18 TDs), Justin Johnson (1,081 yards, 11 TDs) and Tyron Carrier (914 yards, 5 TDs), and running backs Charles Sims (782 yards, 9 TDs) and Michael Hayes (707 yards, 11 TDs) give UH a variety of playmakers capable of putting up big numbers in any given game.
Speaking of numbers, Keenum has taken the video game-gaudy statistical tradition of former Houston passing legends Andre Ware and David Klingler to another level. The 6’2”, 210-pounder from Abilene, Texas, owns the all-time FBS records for total offense (19,572 yards), passing yards (18,685) and passing TDs (152). This season, the 23-year-old — who was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a knee injury last season — led the nation in both passing yards (5,099) and passing TDs (45), while completing 71.7 percent of his passes and throwing just five INTs.
On paper, the Nittany Lions appear to have a formidable defense, ranking fifth nationally in points allowed (15.7 ppg) and 10th in total defense (300.9 ypg). But Penn State played only two offenses ranked in the top 40 nationally in scoring — Wisconsin (4th) and Alabama (16th). PSU went 0–2, losing by a combined score of 72–18 in those contests.
WHEN PENN STATE HAS THE BALL:
If Coach Bradley has his way, the Nittany Lions will play ball-control football, squeeze the air out of the pigskin, dominate time-of-possession and keep Keenum and Co. off the field. That is Penn State’s only realistic formula for victory; PSU will not be able to win a shootout against Houston.
This season, Penn State’s season-high was 41 points, scored against lowly Indiana State in the opener. The Nittany Lions topped 30 points two other times, against Eastern Michigan and at Northwestern. Houston, however, scored over 40 points in 10 games this year and failed to score 30 points only once — scoring 28 in its lone loss to Southern Miss.
Stud sophomore running back Silas Redd (1,188 yards on 5.2 ypc, 7 TDs) will have to dominate a Cougars run defense that ranked 77th nationally, allowing 171.8 yards per game and 12 rushing TDs in 13 games this season.
If Houston scores often that just means more kick return chances for Penn State ace Chaz Powell, who averages 28.3 yards per return and has a 95-yard TD on his resume. Kicker and punter Anthony Fera is also a weapon, having connected on 14-of-17 field goals while averaging 42.0 yards per punt. But Fera will need to be careful punting to Cougars returners Patrick Edwards and Damian Payne, who combined to score two TDs and average 17.3 yards per return. Tyron Carrier is a force on kickoff returns, with a 24.8-yard average and a 100-yard TD. Houston hasn’t punted much or kicked many field goals (10-of-12).
Houston sends Keenum out in style, while Penn State ends an ugly season with an embarrassing loss. The Cougars’ offense will run past a Nittany Lion defense — and program — that is licking their wounds after the JoePa, Sandusky disaster.
Houston 42, Penn State 20