- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Neither Penn State nor Houston expected to be in this bowl, but one team was passed over by several games and the other lost a BCS berth and a league title on the same afternoon. As a result, the Nittany Lions and Cougars meet in one of the more intriguing matchups on this year's bowl slate.
Let's take a look at the TicketCity Bowl, played Monday at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
WHO TO WATCH: Penn State running back Silas Redd. The sophomore led the nation with 703 rush yards in October, but paid a price physically in November. He's now healthy again after more than a month off and should be the focal point of Penn State's attack against Houston. The Lions' quarterback situation is shaky at best, and Penn State must take advantage of a healthy Redd and a size advantage along the offensive line. Houston has struggled against the run this season, ranking 78th nationally, and repeatedly got gashed in the Conference USA championship against Southern Miss. Penn State wants to control possession time and keep Cougars star quarterback Case Keenum off of the field. Expect Redd's number to be called a lot.
WHAT TO WATCH: Penn State's defensive back seven. The Lions face a Houston team that leads the nation in scoring (50.8 ppg), passing (443.8 ypg) and total yards (599 ypg). Houston passes the ball more than 60 percent of the time, a departure what Penn State typically sees in the Big Ten. While Devon Still and the Lions' defensive line needs a strong performance, the back seven will be tested by Keenum and his weapons. Penn State will lean on a veteran secondary and a dynamic linebacker corps featuring Gerald Hodges. "To duplicate what they do is very, very difficult for us," Lions interim coach Tom Bradley told reporters this week, referring to Houston. "Any time you play a team like that you have to tackle well. You can't give them the big play." Houston leads the nation in touchdown passes of 20 yards or longer with 29, while Penn State is tied for the national lead in allowing just two such touchdown strikes this season.
WHY TO WATCH: The curiosity factor with Penn State. How will the Nittany Lions respond after two months of intense scrutiny, after the locker-room fight involving quarterback Matthew McGloin, after being passed over by several bowls, and after weeks of speculation about their next head coach (still unnamed)? If Penn State shows up motivated to play, it should have an excellent chance to take down a Houston team that hasn't seen a defense nearly as talented as the Lions this season. But motivation is a question mark for a group that was justifiably upset with its bowl placement and has faced more than a few distractions.
PREDICTION: Penn State 28, Houston 24. I might be in the minority, but I think Penn State finds a way to show up and play well against Keenum and the Cougars. Redd will have a very big performance behind the offensive line, and the Lions defense will fluster Keenum, much like Southern Miss did in the C-USA title game. Keenum will make some plays, but Still will be in his face much of the afternoon. Bradley and the seniors keep the team focused enough to come away with a win.