PSU: 5 keys to a win against Memphis


For The Express

DALLAS — Five things to look for as Penn State plays in its third New Year’s Six bowl game in four years against a Memphis team looking to make a big splash against a marquee opponent.

Strength vs. strength

Penn State has an excellent defense. Memphis has an excellent offense. Coaches for both teams heaped praise on the other in that regard Friday.

“This Penn State defense is the best we’ve seen,” Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield said.

“We have a tremendous challenge with their offense,” PSU coach James Franklin said.

The Nittany Lions do have a lot of good players on defense, but when they don’t get to the quarterback, they are susceptible to giving up big numbers in the passing game.

Memphis certainly is capable of putting up big numbers with its passing game. Brady White has thrown for 3,560 yards (No. 12 nationally) and 33 touchdowns.

PSU defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney need to get pressure on White on the outside, and if the Lions can get a push inside, as well, they would make life very difficult for White.

But if White gets rid of the ball quickly — as Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan did in completing 18-of-20 for 339 yards — the Tigers will have a chance to put up a lot of yards.

It’s been said most of the season that Penn State’s secondary isn’t all that great, and those DBs need help from the front seven getting to the quarterback.

The Tigers throw it well, and they also run it well. Kenneth Gainwell has rushed for 1,425 yards this season, and although he hasn’t faced a defense as good as PSU’s, he still could be very dangerous, especially if Memphis is throwing the ball well and has a balanced attack.

Oh, and Penn State also has to worry about a good group of wide receivers, led by Damonte Coxie (68 catches for 1,144 yards and nine TDs).

Red zone

The guess here is both offenses are going to have a good day. Memphis doesn’t have a great defense, so the Lions should move the ball a good bit. And even though PSU has a strong defense, this Memphis offense has the skill people in place to get a bunch of first downs.

The key will be which team can make the most out of its drives by finishing things off in the red zone.

Historically, Penn State has been great defensively in that regard. The classic bend but don’t break style of defense.

The Lions will have to be good at that today. As the field gets smaller in the red zone, Memphis will have to make big plays going up against excellent athletes at every position, and that definitely favors PSU.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth could be a big weapon in the red zone today for the Lions. We also could see a good dose of Noah Cain, who’s now fully healthy, and his strong running inside the 10.

Big game

Memphis needs to be careful today. This is the biggest game in program history, and the Tigers are going to be amped up beyond belief.

That can lead to a lot of mistakes.

Penn State’s players are used to big games. Every week is their Super Bowl (wink wink).

But when you’re the little guy and you get into this kind of matchup, one of two distinct realities can occur:

1. You can shock the world with incredible play, or …

2. You can stink up the joint because the moment is clearly too big for you

We’ll find out today which category Memphis will fall in.

Nothing to lose

Penn State needs to be careful today going up against an opponent that could try throwing everything at it, including the kitchen sink.

Remember that classic Boise State upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl? The Broncos came out firing with trick plays and aggressive playcalls and pulled off the upset.

Memphis has a great offense. Look for the Tigers to be aggressive, to take shots downfield, to go for it on fourth down, to try a fake punt or field goal. Underdogs that can do those things effectively always have a shot upsets.

This is the head coaching debut of Memphis’ Ryan Silverfield, so he’s a wild card who has every reason to try a bunch of different things in order to pull off the upset.

Players to watch

PSU: QB Sean Clifford was banged up late in the year but is back healthy. Penn State should have a chance to score a bunch, since Memphis doesn’t have a great defense. But that will be dependent on how Clifford plays, how accurate he is throwing and if he’s able to take off and run some.

Memphis: The offensive line needs to have a great day. If it does, the Tigers have a quarterback and running back who are capable of making big plays. If the line gives White time to throw and opens up some running lanes for Gainwell, we could see a shootout.