Penn State Football: Five Things to Watch as the Nittany Lions Take on Memphis
DALLAS— Penn State enters its third New Year's Six bowl in four years on Saturday morning to face a Memphis team playing in the biggest game in program history. It's an interesting dynamic that pits a marquee brand against an up-and-coming program hoping to one day make late December bowl appearances on an annual basis.
Which storyline will prevail? For the second straight season Penn State will face a team having the season of a lifetime and the Nittany Lions will be tasked with not only closing out the year with a win, but doing it against a program that might not move the excitement meter for the average college football fan.
A win gives Penn State its 11th of the year, a loss, another unsatisfying end to an otherwise successful season. There are storylines galore to keep an eye on Saturday morning with an 11 a.m. local kick. Here are just a few of them to watch for.
We'll learn a lot about this Penn State team in the final game of the season and the kind of mindset it has in moments like this. The Nittany Lions aren't in the Rose Bowl, they aren't playing Oregon or USC or a flashy brand. They're playing in the Cotton Bowl against a Memphis program that most people have never watched. How Penn State shows up will say a lot about the leadership in the Lasch Building and the locker room. That's not to say a Penn State loss equates to bad leadership, but a game full of mistakes, bad effort plays and something short of the Nittany Lions' best isn't a great look. Penn State has never really been a program under James Franklin to look past an opponent, but games like this always pose that obstacle to overcome.
Penn State ought to be able to move the ball against Memphis on a fast track, but will it? The sometimes up-and-down nature of the Nittany Lion attack has made mid-game lulls nearly a weekly tradition. If Penn State can get Memphis on its heels with explosive plays and scoring drives early, it'll put the pressure on a Tigers' team that hasn't been in a moment like this before: Behind in a big game against the best team it has seen. Penn State has played under the lights all season and is comfortable under pressure. Getting ahead quick will go a long way towards win No. 11.
Sean Clifford is starting, playing and allegedly healthy, but even he admits that he isn't 100%. How far has he come in a recovery process over the past month and what is he able to do? Clifford admitted earlier in the week that he is more limited now than he was at the start of the season, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's noticeable. If Clifford looks healthy in the pocket and can extend plays with his legs, Penn State should feel comfortable. If he's healthy enough to play but not healthy enough to be 'Sean Clifford' that could spell a long afternoon for the Nittany Lions — especially since Will Levis' legs, power and limited passing playbook are no longer a surprise to opponents if he were to come in for some period of time.
KJ Hamler is not exactly the most open when it comes to his looming NFL decision and by his own description has been a bit under the weather this week. Where is KJ's head at on Saturday? Is it in State College, Dallas or the NFL Draft? Is he healthy enough to play at full speed? For all the weapons Penn State theoretically has, nobody can do what KJ does and nobody can give Memphis fits with big play potential like KJ. If Hamler is healthy and engaged, Penn State will be fine. If he's sick and ready for the next chapter, it might not impact his effort, but a less than 100% KJ Hamler isn't good news for anyone but Memphis.
Same Old Same Old?:
Penn State's defense is the best Memphis will have seen all year and might be the best it has seen in years, but as everyone knows, Penn State's defense is not without its faults. Teams that can throw the ball have given Penn State's defense fits all year, especially if the Nittany Lions feel compelled to throw more bodies at a dual-back rushing attack. Memphis is excited, motivated and capable of putting up points on everyone it plays. Penn State's defense is good, but if it's not ready for the task at hand it could be chasing the ball a lot on Saturday. Even if it is engaged, the Nittany Lions will have their hands full with an offense that hasn't been afraid to attack. Can the Nittany Lions get the chunk-play monkey off their back, or is Saturday more of the same bend but don't always break?