NCF Nation: 2012 TicketCity Bowl

Penn State's once-promising season ended with a thud, while Houston quarterback Case Keenum capped a record-setting career with a brilliant performance.

Here's a look at the 2012 TicketCity Bowl.

How the game was won: Houston's offense came out hot, piling up 17 first-quarter points against a Penn State defense that entered the game allowing just 15.7 points per game. Keenum set the tone with two third-down conversions on the game's opening possession and made brilliant throws and decisions all afternoon. The Penn State defense settled down in the final three quarters, but sophomore quarterback Rob Bolden struggled in his first start since Oct. 22, completing only 7 of 25 pass attempts for 137 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. A Houston defense that couldn't stop Southern Miss' run game in the Conference USA championship game contained Silas Redd and the Penn State ground attack. The Cougars opened up a 27-7 lead and staved off a brief Penn State comeback to win.

Player of the game: Houston's Keenum. The senior went out with a bang, completing 45 of 69 passes for 532 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He picked apart a Penn State team that entered the game ranked fourth nationally against the pass. Keenum got plenty of help from receivers Patrick Edwards and Justin Johnson, who combined for 21 catches, 376 yards and three touchdowns.

Unsung hero of the game: Cougars safety Nick Saenz. He recorded a career-best two interceptions, doubling his total from the previous 13 games. Although Bolden made it fairly easy on both throws, credit Saenz for making the plays for a Houston defense that played well.

Stat of the game: Keenum’s 45 completions and 69 attempts marked the most by a Penn State bowl opponent. Bolden, who started Penn State’s first seven games at quarterback, entered the bowl with only 46 completions.

Sideline spectator: Arguably no Penn State player felt worse about the result than quarterback Matthew McGloin, who missed the game with a concussion he sustained during a locker-room fight with teammate Curtis Drake. Although McGloin had his struggles as well this season, he would have been a better option than Bolden, who has been out of the mix for so long and looked very rusty.

What it means for Houston: The Cougars won a team-record 13 games and won just their second bowl game in the past 10 tries. They performed well despite losing their coach, Kevin Sumlin, to Texas A&M and rebounded from a lousy performance in the Conference USA championship game. While Houston fans certainly have to wonder what might have been after the league title game loss cost the team a BCS bowl berth, they have to be pleased with the result, especially Keenum.

What it means for Penn State: The loss closes the book on the toughest three-month stretch in program history. The Lions didn't look sharp for much of the game and never put themselves in position to win. After holding its own in the two games after coach Joe Paterno's firing, Penn State seemed to show the effects of all the drama in its losses to Wisconsin and Houston. The McGloin locker-room fight added an unnecessary burden entering the bowl. Penn State might now move forward with a new head coach, yet to be named. The defense returns some nice pieces, but there's a lot of work to be done on offense, particularly under center.
A big question going into today's TicketCity Bowl was whether Penn State would be motivated to play.

It's safe to say the Nittany Lions didn't show up against Houston in the first half.

The Cougars lead 24-7 at halftime, and it could be even worse if not for a missed field goal and a dropped pick-six opportunity. Houston had no fear of Penn State's ferocious defense and decided to go right after the Lions through the air. And boy has that worked.

Record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum has thrown for 381 yards on 45 attempts with three touchdowns in the first half. Keenum attempted 29 passes in the first quarter alone. His favorite target, receiver Patrick Edwards, has 201 receiving yards, including a 75-yard scoring grab late in the half when it looked like Penn State had started to build a little momentum. Remember that Penn State allowed just 162 passing yards per game in the regular season, so this is stunning.

Meanwhile, the Lions' offense has done next to nothing. Quarterback Rob Bolden, starting for the injured Matt McGloin, is just 2-for-10 for 55 yards. Tailback Silas Redd, who figured to have a big game against Houston's defense, has run for only 23 yards on nine carries. The Nittany Lions' points came after a big punt return by Justin Brown set them up with a short field. We knew this was a wild mismatch between offenses, but Penn State's defense has been vastly disappointing in all facets.

It's ugly all the way around for Penn State, which looks like it just wants to go back to State College and wait for a new head coach to be hired.

TicketCity Bowl: Three Keys

January, 1, 2012
You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for Houston (12-1) against Penn State (9-3) in the TicketCity Bowl on Monday.

1. Get motivated. The big question is whether or not Houston will be able to get up for this game. The Cougars were a win away from getting to the first BCS game in school history, but lost to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game. That was such a devastating loss. To go from potential BCS spot to this game has got to be a letdown. Plus, Houston will be without the coach that got them there. Kevin Sumlin left to become head coach at Texas A&M. Assistant Tony Levine was promoted, so everybody gets to see how he does in his first ever game as a head coach.

2. Protect Case Keenum. One of the biggest contributing factors in the Cougars' upset loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game was the way the offensive line struggled to protect Case Keenum. He was only sacked twice, but he was on the run from the pass rush for a majority of the game. Now Penn State arrives with top-notch defensive tackle Devon Still ready to wreak havoc. Penn State has 26 sacks on the season and should have an advantage in this category. Still has been battling turf toe, so that could be an advantage for Houston if he is not 100 percent.

3. Strike with big pass plays. Houston ranks No. 1 in the nation in passing offense, and will face a huge test in a Penn State defense that ranks No. 5 against the pass. Penn State only has given up two touchdowns of 20-plus yards this season, while Houston has 29. Houston might have a speed advantage, so if the Cougars can protect Keenum, players like Patrick Edwards might have an opportunity to get free. Keenum has to watch for safety Nick Sukay, a second-team Big Ten selection. Penn State had 14 interceptions on the season and Southern Miss showed that with pressure, Keenum can be forced into making mistakes.
No. 19 Houston (12-1) takes on No. 22 Penn State (9-3) in the TicketCity Bowl on Monday in Dallas. Here is a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Houston quarterback Case Keenum. What a career for the sixth-year senior, set to play his final game in a Houston uniform. Keenum will depart with NCAA records for passing yards, total offense, completions, passing touchdowns and 300-yard games. He also set a record with his third 5,000-yard season. Keenum had a performance to forget in the Conference USA championship game against Southern Miss, throwing two interceptions and completing a season-low 61 percent of his passes. You can bet he is going to want to leave on a better note.

WHAT TO WATCH: Houston's run defense. When we last saw the Cougars, their run defense was gashed for 207 yards in a loss to Southern Miss. It was the fifth time this season Houston had given up over 200 yards on the ground. Now they are preparing to play a team that is much better on the ground than in the pass game. Penn State running back Silas Redd has been a workhorse when healthy, and he says he is 100 percent going into this game.

WHY TO WATCH: Outside of the BCS games, this is one of a handful of games that features two ranked teams. Houston fell to this spot because it lost the C-USA title game; Penn State fell because of the scandal that has engulfed the school. This is actually a pretty classic matchup of a high-powered offense against a top-notch defense. Consider this nugget from ESPN Stats & Information: Houston had 29 touchdown passes of 20 or more yards this season, most in the FBS. Penn State allowed just two such touchdown passes all season.

PREDICTION: Penn State 24, Houston 21. While it is true Penn State has struggled putting points on the board this season, Houston has not played a defense as good as the Nittany Lions' this season. Penn State ranks No. 10 in the nation in total defense, and has Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still looming large on the line. The secondary has been outstanding at limiting the big plays, too. Houston struggled in pass protection and versus the run against Southern Miss, so I think Penn State will be able to take advantage of those two areas and win.
Let's take a look at three keys for Penn State in the Nittany Lions' Ticket City Bowl matchup against Houston:

1. Get physical: Houston scored more points than any college football team this year and has the NCAA's all-time leading passer in Case Keenum. But the Cougars are also a spread team that played a weak schedule. They have not seen a defense anywhere near as strong or as physical as Penn State's. The best way to stop a spread offense is to push it around, especially in the trenches. All-American defensive tackle Devon Still should have a field day disrupting Houston's timing if he brings the same intensity he showed all season. The Nittany Lions' corners also need to knock receivers off their routes at the line of scrimmage. If it's a wide-open type of game, then Houston has a great chance. If it's a Big Ten-style street fight, Penn State should prevail.

2. Redd rover, Redd rover: Penn State's offensive game plan should be pretty simple: hand the ball to Silas Redd. He's one of the best tailbacks in the Big Ten and should be better after having time to heal some nagging injuries he dealt with down the stretch of the regular season. Houston allowed more than 171 yards per game on the ground during the year and got steamrolled by Southern Miss for 207 rushing yards in the C-USA championship game loss. Given that Penn State's quarterback situation is uncertain with Matt McGloin still recovering from a concussion and the shaky Rob Bolden potentially starting, the running game becomes even more important. The fact that it helps keep Keenum on the sidelines doesn't hurt, either.

3. Play with fire: Few people would be surprised if Penn State's players came out unfocused or unmotivated for this one. The Nittany Lions have weathered unimaginable adversity while trying to play through the Sandusky sex-abuse case and media circus. They still don't have a permanent head coach more than 50 days after Joe Paterno was fired. And the team made it publicly known how upset it was with its selection to the TicketCity Bowl rather than a bigger postseason game. The Lions will have to play far away from home against an opponent that has the home-state advantage. Watch how Penn State responds early if Keenum and the Cougars put up a quick score. The Nittany Lions likely have more talent across the board, but if they don't play like they want to be there, it won't matter.
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.