A New Beginning

The 19th ranked Houston Cougars (12-1) will face the 22nd ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3) on Monday January the 2nd at the old Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

Game time is set for 11AM (CST) and will be televised on ESPNU. Both teams have plenty in common as they are both coming off defeats in games that would have put them in BCS bowl games (Houston's losing 49-28 to Southern Miss in the C-USA championship game cost the team it's first ever BCS bowl berth while Penn State's 45-7 loss at Wisconsin on November 26th cost them a shot at the Big10's first ever championship game and a potential Rose bowl berth). The game will pit teams with a combined record of 21-4. Only two bowl games will feature teams with better combined records, the BCS title game in New Orleans between LSU (13-0) and Alabama (11-1) and the Fiesta Bowl that will pit Stanford (11-1) against Oklahoma State (11-1).

Both teams also have interim head coaches trying to keep their respective team's momentum going into the 2012 season, even if they might not be the head coach come September of next year. For the Cougars, Tony Levine was named the schools head coach Saturday December 10th, hours after Kevin Sumlin left for his "dream" job as the head coach at Texas A&M. Penn State's situation is far more complicated as Joe Pa (or Joe Paterno for those not in the know) was forced out after almost 62 years of service to the university (the first 16 years as an assistant, followed by 46 as head coach) due to the ‘child molestation scandal' by a former assistant coach whom I will not oblige (being the father of three children, two of which are sons I will not acknowledge the piece of garbage's name in my article).

On November 9th, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was named Penn State's interim coach. He has guided the team to a 1-2 record in his three games. Both coaches echo the same thoughts as they head into this game. Levine's thoughts on his focus as Coogs coach, via uhcougars.com, "This is going to be not the first game of next season, but the last game of this season. We've got 17 terrific seniors that have been here. Some have been here two years as transfers. Some have been here four years that did not redshirt. Some have been here five, and we know of one that's been here six and they've given everything they could to this program, and we're going to send them off the right way. Really right now, between our players' academics, getting ready for Penn State and recruiting, there's nothing more important than those three things."

Bradley's thoughts on his present focus and future tenure as a member of PSU's staff (of which he's already spent 33 years as a part of), via the Pittsburgh post-gazette.com, "This is a busy time with recruiting, finals and bowl preparation going on. I am interested in the position on a permanent basis and have voiced that. I anticipate being part of the official interview process in the not so distant future. I don' t think any team in the history of major college football has been through so much in such a short time period, but they've hung in there and fought through it. I couldn't be prouder of them."

The Nittany Lions are in their 125th season of intercollegiate football and own an 827-360-42 record, to rank fifth nationally in all-time victories behind powerhouse programs such as Michigan, Texas, Notre Dame and Nebraska.

They have a 27-14-2 record in bowl games. Their 27 wins rank third all time and their 43 bowl trips rank eighth. They will be playing their first bowl game without Joe Paterno since the 1962 Gator Bowl. The last time the Nittany Lions played in a bowl game without Paterno on the staff was their 13-13 tie with SMU in the 1948 Cotton Bowl.

Their 23 seniors have been instrumental in Penn State earning a 38-13 record the past four years, including a Big Ten Championship (2008), and berths in four different New Year's bowls games (and 6 out of 7 years). They are also 7-1 in games decided by 10 points or less this season.

When one thinks of Penn State it brings up former Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes famous offensive philosophy of "...three yards and a cloud of dust," which relies on a smash mouth type of running game to control the clock and a dominating defense, of which PSU definitely brings to the table. In fact, over the past eight years entering this season, Penn State was one of only three defensive units that ranked among the top five in the nation in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense (the other two being Ohio State and TCU). Their defense is not far off of those stats entering play against the Coogs as they are 5th in scoring defense (15.7 points per game), 10th in total defense (300.9) and 48th in rushing defense (138.8). More importantly they are ranked 5th best in the nation against the pass, allowing opponents to throw for a mere 162 yards per game. Cougars all-everything quarter back Case Keenum has thrown for that many yards in a good quarter a few times this season, leading the explosive up-tempo Airraid Houston Cougar offense, which is first in the nation in scoring (50.8), passing (443.8), and total offense (599 per game) this season.

The key to Penn State's traditional 4-3 defense is right defensive tackle Devon Still. The fifth year senior (whom has started 24 consecutive games over the past two seasons) has been named 1st team All American by just about every media establishment this season and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year award winner. The massive 6-foot-5, 310 pound tackle recorded 17 tackles for loss (tied for 17th in the nation), to go along with 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His matchup (along with fellow tackle and near 300 pounder; Jordon Hill) against Cougars offensive lineman Chris Thompson (center) and Ty Cloud (left guard) will be a huge reason whether or not the Cougars offense is successful on the day. Penn State's defensive line (the aforementioned two tackles along with defensive ends Jack Crawford (right) and Sean Stanley/Eric Latimore (both of whom share time at left end) have combined for 21 of the team's 29 sacks, which is the same exact number the Cougars have (which is tied for 25th in the nation). Along with Thompson and Cloud, fellow Cougars O-linemen (Jacolby Ashworth at left tackle, Kevin Forsch at right guard and Rowdy Harper at right tackle) need to atone for their poor performance in their last game in which they allowed Keenum to be under relentless pressure all day against the Golden Eagles. The Nittany Lions will no doubt use the same game plan as Southern Miss did to slow the Cougars offense, which will rely mainly on pressure from its front four, allowing the back seven to drop back in various zone defenses.

While they will rely on pressure mainly from its front four, their ‘playmakers' on defense come in their back seven in Sam linebacker Gerald Hodges and Hero (or strong) safety Drew Astorino. The two lead the team in tackles with 97 and 77 respectively. The athletic 235 pound Hodges also has ten tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 interception which he returned for 63 yards in their win over Ohio State. Astorino is their second leading tackler with 77, but he also has 5 tackles for loss (most of anybody in the secondary). This shows that co defensive coordinators, Larry Johnson (D-line coach) and Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers) are not afraid to use Astorino's speed in order to blitz off of the edges or up the middle.

Other backers and members of the secondary to be on the lookout for are Glenn Carson (Mike linebacker) and Nate Stupar (will backer). They have 74 and 68 tackles respectively.Stupar also has two interceptions and five passes defended and is used much like the Cougars use their own will inside backer, Phillip Steward (often in coverage on running backs and slot receivers). Free Safety Nick Sukay leads the team with three interceptions and ten passes defended. Chaz Powell and D'Anton Lynn are their two starting corners who have prototypical Big 10 size (both are over 6 feet tall and weigh over 200 pounds) and can hold their own in man coverage if need be. Their matchups with Cougars record breaking receivers Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier will be interesting to watch. Also how slot man (and the offenses surprise player of the year), Justin Johnson fares against Stupar and/or Sukay will determine how much success the passing game has, especially on those quick slants and skinny posts over the middle to both Johnson and Carrier. Look for Keenum to take a shot downfield early on to see exactly what type of coverages Penn State's secondary plays, though I'm sure they will mix it up throughout the game as playing just one coverage versus this Cougars offense is suicide (just ask Rice).

The only team that Penn State has faced in Big10 action that is remotely comparable to the Cougars offense is maybe Northwestern, whom the Nittany Lions beat 34-24 in mid October. The Wildcats carved Penn State up for 281 first half yards that day, led by their gun slinging QB Dan Persa. He injured his ankle early in the fourth quarter but by that time Penn State's defense had adjusted to Northwestern's quick passing game that the Cougars execute at better than any team in the nation. Stupar on comparing the Cougars offense to the Wildcats during the team's media day on Monday, via StateCollege.com, "Coach Jay (Paterno) said that this is like Northwestern, but on steroids, so we'll see how well we practice and get down there and see what happens Jan. 2." Astorino on stopping the Coogs offense, "If you're blitzing he's (Keenum) throwing it quick, if you're not blitzing then he gets to sit in the pocket for a long time, so we're going to need pressure on him and we're going to need lockdown coverage. Coach Bradley on defending the Coogs offense, "I was teasing Larry (Johnson) and Ron (Vanderlinden) saying, "I'm glad I'm not the defensive coordinator for this game. They're a very exciting team. We have played teams that throw the ball that much over the course of time. If you look back, we've seen some Michigan State teams come in here and throw it 60 times. One of the things that is very unique about this team is their quarterback. He's one heck of a football player. Five interceptions and 45 touchdowns, that's a heck of a ratio. They have good receivers; Carrier is one heck of a football player. They've got skill everywhere. They move that skill around and they're hard to defend. They play a number of different positions and we've got our hands full with a lot of challenges about how we play them. They also run the ball. Everyone thinks they're just a passing team and they're not. They do a good job; they keep you off-balance. A lot of downs they're 50-50 since we broke them down. They're hard to get tendencies on and one of the things they have is a very veteran group. If you look at their roster, it's a bunch of seniors that are fifth-year seniors; a senior quarterback who's broken every NCAA [offensive] record. We really understand what we're up against."

This pass/run ratio will be the key in determining how successful the Coogs offense will perform versus this vaunted Penn State defense. Usually, when opposing defenses line up against the Cougars offensive front with only three or four down linemen, Keenum is given the authority to audible to a running play (if one hasn't been called already). Penn State will try to entice the Cougars to run more with these fronts knowing full well they can stop it. If the Cougars offense is constantly in 2nd or 3rd & long (more than six yards), they will be in big trouble as Penn State's pass rush will gun for Keenum knowing he's got to wait a tad longer in order for his receivers to get open downfield. The Coogs need to come out firing early in the passing game with short quick strikes. It's much easier for the offense to convert a 3rd & 2 than it is a 3rd & 8, as the running game is still a factor with the former down and distance situation. Many times this season after softening up opposing back seven's with the pass, have the Cougars been able to spring their lethal running game via the delay draw, which has gained many chunks of yards for backs Michael Hayes and Charles Sims. These two backs will also be used plenty out of the backfield on many swing and screen passes from Case. Hopefully Bryce Beall will be a factor in this game as it would be nice to watch the senior have a nice game in his last game as a Coog.

Offensively for Penn State, keep away will be the name of the game as far as their game plan is concerned. They are as old school as you can get on offense, or at least they were before coach Bradley took over and told offensive coordinator Galen Hall to employ various ‘Wildcat' packages geared to take advantage of some of the Nittany Lions younger talent, such as receivers Curtis Drake and Bill Benton. Between the two they have completed one pass in two attempts (a sixteen yarder by Drake). Drake has, however, rushed for 52 yards on only 5 carries (for a nifty 10.4 yard per carry average) in the three games since Bradley became interim head coach. Bradley also named Matt McGloin the permanent starter (he has started the past five games), after he had been splitting time with sophomore Rob Bolden most of the season. McGloin has completed 125 of 231 passes for 1,571 yards along with 8 TDs passing and 5 interceptions. Bolden is 46 for 109 for 548 with only one TD passing and 4 picks. Bolden is considered more of the runner but only has 22 yards on 23 attempts after taking away 52 yards when accounting for sacks.

With all of the inconsistencies at QB, it's easy to see why they only average 180 yards per game passing (which ranks them 95th in the nation), while barely completing 50 percent of their passes to go along with nine TDs passing the entire season (Keenum passed for that many versus Rice alone earlier in the year). To add to the confusion is their status at QB for this game. Bradley has said it will be a game time decision as to who the starter will be, as both McGloin (concussion due to a fight with a team mate over the weekend) and Bolden (arrested for ‘retail theft' for stealing nearly three dollars worth of food from a campus cafeteria in what team officials are calling a prank) are both questionable. Their third string QB is Shane McGregor who has completed one of four passes in two games all season. Look for plenty of wildcat looks from Penn State's offense if neither QB can go.

Inconsistencies with the QB notwithstanding, they do have talented wide receivers, highlighted by offensive co-captain Derek Moye. The senior leads the team with 40 receptions for 654 yards and 3 TDs this season and is PSU's 5th all time receiver in receptions with 144, third in receiving yards with 2,395 and 4th in TD receptions with 18. Justin Brown is a physical 6-foot-3, 215 pounder who can give the smaller Coogs defensive backs problems. He's second on the team with 34 receptions for 448 yards and one TD. Devon Smith is the third wideout in Penn State's spread scheme and is the water bug as he is listed at 5-foot-7, 155 pounds. He has 353 yards on 23 receptions and 2 TDs. After that there is a huge drop off in terms of receptions, but look out for tight end Andrew Szczerba in matching up against the Cougars linebackers (especially Stewart and freshman sensation Derrick Mathews). Opposing teams have given the Cougars secondary fits over the middle of the field with huge tight ends and Szczerba is no different as he is a stout 6-foot-6 255 pounder. He seals off the edge well in the running game and has only 12 receptions on the year for 101 yards.

Speaking of the running game, this is obviously where Penn State holds the advantage over most opponents. The team averaged 137 yards rushing per game over their first four games, but have rushed for 1,425 yards in their eight Big10 games for an average of a tad over 178 yards per game. Their 164.4 yards per game average overall ranks 55th in the nation, opposed to the Cougars 155 per game which ranks then 62nd. That running game is led by true sophomore Silas Redd, who has emerged as one of the Big Ten's best running backs. The bowling ball of a back (at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds) has especially excelled during the month of October when he led the FBS with 703 rushing yards and averaged 140.6 yards per game. Their offensive line (highlighted by left tackle Quinn Barham) averages 305 pounds per man and has improved as the season has progressed as they have allowed only 12 sacks for the entire year. With three fifth year seniors starting (the aforementioned Barham, Johnnie Troutman at left guard and Chima Okoli at right tackle) along with Szczerba at tight end it's easy to see why their running game will be one of the major keys to this game.

As much as Penn State wants to control the clock to keep the ball out of the Cougars high powered offenses collective hands, the Cougars defense (led by defensive coordinator Brian Stewart) will try to counter this by loading the box early. If they can stuff the run on first down (creating 2nd and 3rd and longs), they will force Penn State's offense to do what they don't want to, IE relying on their QB's arms to move the chains. This game will be won in the trenches between Penn State's offensive line and the Coogs front seven. The rotation of interior linemen David Hunter, Dominic Miller, Eric Braswell, Kelvin King, Zeke Riser, Lloyd Allen, Joey Mbu will have to slow down Penn State's inside runs on first down. Also as important will be linebackers Sammy Brown (will or rush backer) and defensive captain and inside backer, Marcus McGraw. Brown leads the nation in tackles for loss (with 28) and how he plays the running game will be huge as he has the ability to stop Redd in the backfield on many of PSU's inside Iso running plays. Also, look for Stewart to send McGraw (whom only needs 8 more tackles to become the Cougars all time leader) on many of his vaunted run blitzes up the A and B gaps in order to stop the power Iso runs as well.

This emphasis on stopping the run will leave the secondary in plenty of one on one matchups with the physical Penn State receivers. Although plenty of zone coverages (including Stewart's favorite ‘cover-2') will be played, the secondary cannot allow Penn State big plays in the passing game. The Cougars leader in the backfield all season long has been corner D.J. Hayden, who will probably be locked up with Moye most of the game. This will leave Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates on Brown and Smith. I look for the Cougars to play more man coverage in this game than probably any other game this season as Penn State isn't your typical pass happy C-USA team and relies on the run so much.

Special teams play for Penn State, much like for the Cougars, has been up and down most of the season. They have been average on kickoff and punt coverage, allowing 8.1 yards per punt return to rank them 67th in the nation (while the Coogs have allowed 8.6 per return ranking them 74th). The Cougars allow 21.5 yards per kickoff return while Penn State allows 21.8, good for 60th and 63rd respectively. The difference may be that Cougars kicker, Jordan Mannisto has 25 touchbacks on 77 kickoffs while Penn State's kicker, Anthony Fera has only 10 on 55.This may be a factor as potential windy conditions could lead to a few bad kicks and/or punts (Cougars fans have seen this before, as I'm sure PSU fans have playing in cold and windy conditions up north). They will be kicking to two of the nations better kick returners in Carrier for the Coogs (who needs one more kickoff returned for a TD to break the FBS record in which he is currently tied with at seven with former Clemson back C.J. Spiller), along with Powell for PSU, whom averages nearly 28 yards per return himself. Fera is also Penn State's punter and averages nearly 42 yards per punt with 17 placed inside the opponents' twenty yard line (on 55 punts). Meanwhile for the Coogs Richie Leone hopes to atone for his bad game versus Southern Miss as he averages nearly 42 yards per punt. Edwards is a dangerous punt returner for the Coogs and can flip field position quickly as he averages 14.6 per return and would place 7th in the nation if he had enough returns to qualify. Brown only averages 7.5 per punt return as PSU's primary punt returner, although Moye has averaged over 14 on only 3 returns. He might get the job as this is his last game wearing a Penn State uniform. If the game comes down to a field goal the Coogs have the edge as place kicker Matt Hogan is 10 for 12 this season and is 36 for 41 over this three year career for an astonishing 87.8 accuracy percentage. Meanwhile Penn State has three kickers who have combined to miss eight field goals, making 16 of 24. The 24 attempts are tied for 17th in the nation (which will also be a major factor in determining the outcome of the game, IE the Cougars want the Nittany Lions to kick field goals rather than score TDs in the red zone). Fera is also their best place kicker as he has been good on 14 of his 17 attempts.

How these teams perform on the field will have a lot to do with the decision on whether or not both of these coaches are retained for the future, in my opinion. In other words, which coaching staff can get its team properly motivated to play in a game that has to be deemed a disappointment, considering what was at stake for both teams in their last game. In fact, many of Penn State's players have already mentioned how unhappy they were to be playing the Coogs, "Someone please tell me that the rumors swirling about the Ticket City Bowl are a sick joke. The players are getting punished for things they had nothing to do with," tweeted redshirt junior linebacker Mike Yancich. "Remind me again what we did to deserve this?" said redshirt junior long snapper Mike Fuhrman. And the worst tweet, in my opinion, "Might as well [be] playing against concord high psu vs chs," said starting wideout Justin Brown. All tweets were via the Pittsburgh post-gazett. Of course Bradley reiterated that his team would have plenty of motivation for the game during one of the recent TicketCity media press conferences, "We are happy and proud to have the opportunity to play against such a great team in the University of Houston. It is an honor for our team, and we look forward to it with great anticipation."

When I talked to coach Stewart yesterday he said the fifteen team practices (which are about halfway over) thus far have been great and the guys are looking forward to playing another game, coming off of that bad loss versus Southern Miss. Coach Levine during this past Saturday's open practice, "They (Penn State) have an unbelievable defense that will be the best we have played against all season. We're looking forward to the challenge and I can confidently say that our kids will be ready." I definitely look for both teams to be motivated to play this game.

My thoughts on the two interim coaches and whether or not they should be retained after the season; I think both Bradley and Levine have shown enough in a short time to warrant becoming named permanent coaches at the two universities.

Penn State, under Paterno, has preached a family-like atmosphere where assistant coaches stay with the school for a long time. Four of their eight assistants have been on staff for at least fifteen years with at least three (including Bradley's 33 years) having given more than 30 years of service. This philosophy is refreshing in a time in which many programs preach this family atmosphere, but then watch assistants or head coaches leave for the ‘next big job' as soon as it becomes available. Continuity in a coaching staff can go a long way in a teams' long term success.

For that same reason I think Levine has earned his shot. With the Cougars on the brink of entering the Big East conference (July of 2013), the football team must keep its momentum and naming a new head coach would probably lead to new assistants coming on board as well. This ‘changing of the guard' can kill recruiting and if a new staff implements new schemes on both sides of the ball, the momentum would come to a screeching halt as it can take years for players to become comfortable in learning new systems. The Cougars must continue preaching their fast tempo pass first offensive philosophy (along with an added emphasis on stopping such types of offense) in order to keep their recruiting advantages over many BCS AQ conference programs. Only after many years of competing for conference and national championships in a BCS affiliated conference, can a team garner the cache to recruit the types of athletes that excel in traditional pro schemes on both sides of the ball. Such universities as Penn State, for example, which has been known as both "Linebacker and Running back U," for the amount of athletes that go on to play in the League after their eligibility is over in college. This is why keeping this staff at this time is very important to the future success of the Cougars football program. If athletic director Mack Rhoades decides to go in another direction, Sonny Dykes (currently Louisiana Tech's head coach) wouldn't be a bad second option. He's been known as a recruiting guru in the South West region and knows the ‘airraid' like the back of his hand (both negating some of the negatives I mentioned earlier in bringing in a new staff).

Now, as for my prediction on the game? I feel as if the Cougars can accomplish their game plan goals that I mentioned as they will start the game much better than they did against Southern Miss. With no drops early the Coogs could have had a 14-0 lead on USM, which I feel will be the case in this game. The Cougars starting hot and getting off to an early lead, making PSU adjust to their tempo will be key as the Coogs point differential in the second half (plus 202) is second in the nation only to LSU's 203. This second half domination will hold true as the Coogs hold on for dear life as Penn State rallies too little, too late.

Houston - 34 Penn State - 27

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