Sunday, December 4, 2011
By Andrea Adelson and Brian Bennett
Houston Cougars (12-1) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-3)
Jan. 2, noon ET (ESPNU)
Houston take from Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: It was all right there for Houston.
All the Cougars had to do was beat Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game to make the first BCS appearance in school history. But they had their worst performance of the season, losing 49-28, dashing any hopes of getting up on the big stage. Now they have to settle for a lower-tier bowl game as they wonder about what could have been.
The loss puts a damper on what has been a special season. The 12 wins are the most in school history, and quarterback Case Keenum shattered virtually every NCAA passing mark -- career yards, career touchdown passes and total offense came tumbling down in a torrent of scoreboards that were lit up every single week. He threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in his career, along with a career-high 45 touchdown passes. Patrick Edwards had a terrific season as well, with more than 1,500 yards receiving. Linebacker Sammy Brown anchored the defense with his standout play. But this has been a program with a reputation of dropping a game it is favored to win every season. Just go back to 2009. After beating Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to open the season 3-0, Houston lost to UTEP. Later that season, the Cougars lost to UCF and in the Conference USA championship game. They managed to make it through this season unscathed until the very moment it mattered most. Perhaps the gravity of the situation overwhelmed the players. Perhaps distractions surrounding coach Kevin Sumlin and future coaching destinations were too much to bear. In any case, what has been one of the best seasons in school history may not be remembered that way.
Penn State take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: Penn State's players deserve a bigger bowl game than this.
The Nittany Lions finished 9-3, tied for a share of the Big Ten Leaders Division lead and are ranked in the Top 25. In any other year, that would all but guarantee a spot in Florida or some other traditional locale.
But this was far from any other year at Penn State. The Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal enveloped the entire university in November and led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Bowls do not like negative publicity, so the Nittany Lions tumbled down the Big Ten postseason pecking order -- all the way to the second-year TicketCity Bowl in Dallas against a non-AQ team.
At least it's an intriguing battle of offense versus defense. Penn State, led by Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still, finished fifth nationally in scoring defense and 10th in yards allowed. That defense will get a major challenge from record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum and a Houston offense that averaged an FBS-best 50.8 points per game this season.
Both teams could have new head coaches by the time the game kicks off, as the Lions are being led by interim coach Tom Bradley, while Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is a candidate for several current openings. We already know at least one winner from this bowl: Penn State has pledged to donate $1.5 million of its postseason proceeds to sex-crime advocacy organizations.