For weeks, the focus of those in and around the Penn State community has been pretty squarely set on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and search for a new head coach to replace Joe Paterno. When Penn State faces Houston on Monday in the TicketCity Bowl at Dallas' Cotton Bowl Stadium, however, those things will fade to the background, at least for four quarters.
The Nittany Lions will be looking to notch their third 10-win season in the last four campaigns.A win would move their record to 10-3. In their way is a 12-1 Cougars team. Their only blemish came in the Conference-USA Championship game against Southern Miss on Dec. 3.
Led by Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Case Keenum, Houston finished ranked No. 1 in the nation in points per game this season with 50.8 and first in passing yards per game with 443.8. The Cougars will likely offer a stern test to a Penn State defensive unit that has been almost equally as strong. The Lions finished ranked No. 5 in the nation in points allowed per game at 15.7. Watching those two units go head to head will likely be one of the highlights of college bowl season.
The battle of the Penn State offense vs. the Houston defense could be just as interesting, though. With the inconsistent Rob Bolden set to start at quarterback for the Lions in the wake of Matthew McGloin's injury suffered in an on-campus altercation with teammate Curtis Drake on Dec. 17, there's no telling what might be in store for a Penn State offense ranked No. 110 nationally in points per game with 19.8 and No. 95 in passing yards per game at 180.3.
Here are some things to look for in the game.
When Penn State has the ball...
-Penn State should look to establish the running game early in order to dictate the pace of the game and help keep Keenum in check by not allowing him to get on the field. With wide-receiver and part-time wildcat quarterback Curtis Drake at home for personal reasons, look for fellow part-time wildcat quarterback Bill Belton to help running backs Silas Redd and Stephfon Green find gaps on the ground.
-Bolden hasn't played much in the second half of the season, and really didn't start practicing to start the bowl game until McGloin's injury on Dec. 17. The pace at which he can shake of the game rust will likely dictate how much the coaches ask him to do later on, so keep an eye on his first few series.
-With Keenum on the field, Houston is always thinking "touchdown" offensively, so Penn State has to enter with that mindset as well. Red zone efficiency has plagued the Lions all season, and they've come away with field goals far more often than they should. If they're going to end the season on a high note, though, they're going to have to score six at least a few times. Penn State's defense is good, but probably not good enough to completely shut Keenum and Co. down. If Penn State is to win, the offense has to be an active participant in the effort, rather than simply dealing glancing blows and letting the defense do the heavy lifting.
When Houston Has The Ball...
-Interim head coach Tom Bradley always says that a game really comes down to four or five big plays, and that the team that makes them is usually wins. This will be especially true for the Penn State defense in this one. Keenum is going to do some damage, no matter how well the defense plays. The key for Penn State will be forcing a few key turnovers that can stop the Cougars' advance and set the offense up with some easy scoring drives. Do that, and suddenly stopping the 5,099-yard, 45-touchdown passer isn't quite so difficult.
-Despite the hype Houston's passing game gets, its running game isn't too bad, either. Both Charles Sims and Michael Hayes have eclipsed the 700-yard rushing mark this season, so Penn State's front seven needs to get after them. If the Lions can shut down the Cougars' running game, it will put more pressure on Keenum, which increases the odds he'll make a costly mistake. Look for All-American defensive tackle Devon Still to lead that charge for Penn State.
-Penn State's Tom Bradley on Keenum and the Houston offense at the final TicketCity Bowl press conference on Sunday: "Houston is different, contrasting styles. Their tempo is different than ours, defense is different. We haven't played an offense like this in a long time.
I think the most impressive thing, anybody that can throw 45 touchdown passes, only five interceptions, that's pretty darn good. Watching stats roll across the TV last night from other quarterbacks, they're not even in the same league as him. That's the one thing that is going to be a big challenge for us."
-Houston coach Tony Levine on the game: "I think it's a matchup of two very distinct and different styles really across the board. Our offense against their defense, their offense against our defense. Obviously the kicking game and styles of play.
When you look at them, at least what I did initially, is looked at Penn State statistically on paper. Once you see where they're ranked among 120 Division I A schools, doesn't take long once you hit 'play' on the DVD player to see why they are.
They're very physical in their style of play and in their stature. I said a couple weeks ago we have not played a team like Penn State all season. It's a tremendous challenge for us as a coaching staff, obviously for our team."
Houston is explosive offensively. Penn State is solid defensively. It's probably reasonable to expect the two units to meet in the middle and play a game in the mid-20s to high 30s, points wise. The outcome will probably hinge on what kind of success the Lions' offense can play against the Cougars defense. Can Bolden break out and become a threat in the passing game? Can the wildcat be effective as it was against Ohio State? If the answers to those two questions are yes, then Penn State will probably have a good chance to win. If the answers are no, it's going to be interesting. And that is why they play the games.
Pick: Penn State, 30-27