Houston recently underwent a coaching transition of its own with the defection of Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M, and the team comes into this contest sporting a near-perfect 12-1 record. The Cougars came within a game of recording the first undefeated regular season in school history, but a 49-28 loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship Game ended that dream, and ruined their chances at earning a BCS bowl invite.
Still, it's hard to take away from the fact that Houston is seeking its record 13th win of the season. With Sumlin having moved on, Tony Levine was first named interim coach, and then a short time later the new head coach as he prepares for his first game in that position. A member of the UH coaching staff the last four years, Levine will assure that there is continuity within the program and he has the respect and admiration of both the team, and those long associated with the university.
Houston is playing in its 21st bowl game, but just its sixth in the month of January. The Cougars are a dismal 1-9 in their last 10 bowl appearances, that lone win coming over Air Force (34-28) in last year's Armed Forces Bowl. UH is taking on a Big Ten Conference foe for the first time since losing at Michigan in 2003.
Despite the disappointment of not winning the C-USA title, UH Director of Athletics Mack Rhoades was appreciative of both the effort put forth by the team this year, and of being selected to play in this particular game, "This will be a first-class event for our student-athletes, our coaching staff, and our fans. To have an opportunity to send this senior class off with one more game in the state of Texas, at a historic venue like the Cotton Bowl, is a great way to thank our fans for all they have meant to us during this record- breaking season."
There is no doubt that Penn State comes into the postseason awash in controversy, as no longer is legendary coach Joe Paterno calling the shots. Paterno was fired in November for his role in the cover-up surrounding the sexual assault allegations levied against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, thus propelling defensive coordinator Tom Bradley into the role of interim head coach. Bradley is certainly familiar with how PSU runs its football team, as he is in his 33rd year on the staff, the last 12 in charge of one of the nation's top defensive units.
Lost in the scandal at Happy Valley this year is the fact that the Nittany Lions actually had a pretty good season. They went 9-3 on the year, and their 6-2 conference mark earned them a share of the Big Ten's Leaders Division crown. They didn't play in the inaugural Big Ten title tilt as they lost the tie-breaker with Michigan State, and they come into this clash having dropped two of their last three games.
Penn State is appearing in its 28th January bowl game, and its 44th overall, and the team is 8-4 all-time in New Year's bowls. Since joining the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions have won seven January bowl games, and are the league's leaders in total bowl victories (27) and bowl winning percentage (.651). This is PSU's sixth bowl game in the state of Texas, and the Lions have never lost to a team from C-USA (14-0-1). Additionally, they own a 14-3-1 record all-time against schools hailing from the Lone Star State.
Putting the team well ahead of his own interests, Bradley wants his players to try and put all the negativity out of their minds and simply enjoy the bowl experience, "Any time you go on a bowl trip, you want the players to enjoy the city. We have been on a lot of bowl trips in a lot of different cities. We have encouraged them to enjoy it and learn and to get a feel for the city. I want them to go out and have a good experience."
This game marks just the third all-time meeting between Houston and Penn State on the gridiron, with the Lions having won both previous encounters (1964, 1977).
Under the field leadership of record-setting QB Case Keenum, the Houston offense was as explosive as any in the country this season. Keenum threw for 5,099 yards, 45 TDs against only five INTs, and he completed nearly 72 percent of his passes. The NCAA-record holder in nearly every major statistical category, Keenum is a gifted signal-caller both in his ability to read a defense, and then of course getting the ball to what seems like one open receiver after another. Proof of that lies in the fact that three players caught at least 75 balls this year, with Tyron Carrier leading the way with 87. Patrick Edwards was the most productive wideout, as he tallied 79 grabs for 1,524 yards and 18 TDs, but Justin Johnson also proved valuable as he hauled in 75 passes for 1,081 yards and 11 scores. With Keenum and company handling the bulk of the offensive duties, the run game simply needed to keep opposing defenses somewhat honest, and it was effective in doing so as the duo of Charles Sims and Michael Hayes combined to rush for 1,489 yards and 20 TDs.
As a result of Houston's electric offense, the team averaged a whopping 50.8 ppg in generating just shy of 600 yards per game of total offense. Despite dropping back to pass more than 600 times this year, UH quarterbacks, mainly Keenum, were sacked only 16 sacks.
Defensively, the Cougars allow 23.1 ppg behind typical outputs of 171.8 ypg rushing and 214.2 ypg passing. The defense came up with 28 turnovers during the regular season and was led by Marcus McGraw and his 131 total tackles. Derrick Matthews wound up making 97 stops, and Sammy Brown certainly made the most of his 89 total tackles, recoding 28 of them, including 12 sacks, for negative yardage. Phillip Steward came up with five picks, and the team as a whole was credited with 29 sacks.
The Penn State offense wasn't nearly as productive as Houston's, and for that matter, not as productive as the majority of teams across the country as it averaged just 19.8 ppg. But there is still talent there, notably RB Silas Redd, who rushed for 1,188 yards and seven TDs during the regular season. Not getting much help from an anemic passing attack, Redd averaged 5.2 ypc and just shy of 100 ypg (99.0). The QB tandem of Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden combined for just over 2,000 passing yards, and it was McGloin who took the bulk of the snaps after unseating Bolden as the starter midway through the campaign. Derek Moye was the team's top receiver with 40 grabs for 654 yards and three scores. The offensive line has performed well in both phases of attack, and it has allowed only 12 sacks on the year.
Unfortunately for McGloin, he may be sitting this game out after suffering a concussion in a post-practice tussle with WR Curtis Drake in mid-December. If that is indeed the case, Bolden will get the nod despite throwing for just 548 yards, one TD and four INTs this season.
With Bradley at the controls, the PSU defense once again stood its ground against the majority of opponents this year, yielding a mere 15.7 ppg behind average outputs of 138.8 ypg rushing and 162.2 ypg passing. The Lions only permitted nine passing TDs and they were particularly strong in the second half of games this season, giving up an average of 6.1 ppg over the final 30 minutes. Gerald Hodges is the latest in a long line of productive LBs at Penn State, as he amassed 97 tackles this year, 10 of which occurred in the backfield. Devon Still is a force up front for the Lions, as he logged 17 TFL, while Jack Crawford led the team with 6.5 sacks. Nick Sukay has three INTs, and Jordan Hill three fumble recoveries.