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2011 TicketCity Bowl Preview

Houston Cougars vs Penn State Nittany Lions

Since bowl games are almost always decided by emotions far more than by X-and-O considerations, the 2012 TicketCity Bowl can and should be viewed as a typical bowl game. Yet, in many other ways, it’s anything but ordinary. Just what kind of drama will unfold inside the venerable Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas on Jan. 2?

First, let’s address the role emotions will play in this game between the Houston Cougars and the Penn State Nittany Lions. On Dec. 3, Houston was 60 minutes away from locking up a spot in the Sugar Bowl. All the Cougars needed to do was defeat the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles to win the championship of Conference USA and – as the highest-ranked champion of a non-automatic-qualifying conference – accept a ticket to a BCS game. The Sugar was going to accept the Cougars based on their proximity to New Orleans, the site of the big showdown. Everything was set up for Houston and head coach Kevin Sumlin. C-USA’s first BCS bowl team was about to become a reality. The league was about to get $17 million. Sumlin’s coaching star was about to be propelled to new heights. Houston star quarterback Case Keenum was about to have a Heisman Trophy moment. Everything the program could have possibly hoped for was right there on the table, waiting to be taken.

Then, everything fell apart.

Clearly distracted by reports that Sumlin was on the verge of accepting a new job at either Arizona State or Texas A&M, Houston’s players failed to focus and allowed Southern Miss to take a 14-0 lead. Houston quickly recovered to forge a 14-all tie, but as soon as USM landed another haymaker on a 69-yard touchdown pass with 4:16 left in the first half, Houston’s negative and uneasy energy returned in all its fatal fullness. Weighed down by the pressure of the occasion, Keenum threw a terrible interception in the Golden Eagles’ end zone to cut short a promising third-quarter drive. Southern Mississippi’s offense grew in confidence, blasting UH’s front seven off the line of scrimmage. In short order, USM – the East Division champion of C-USA – rolled to a 42-21 lead over the West Division winners, leaving Houston players and coaches in a state of shock. The final score was 48-21, and the decisiveness of the loss for UH was as substantial as the enormity of the disappointment. Sumlin’s future is not yet known, but the simple fact that he pursued other jobs before the Conference USA Championship Game certainly upset the chemistry and consistency Houston had established up to that point. Entering this bowl game against Penn State, no one knows how UH’s roster will handle a thoroughly unsettled situation.

Then there’s the roster of Penn State players, which has had to deal with hardships far more overwhelming than anything Houston’s young men have had to go through.

The Nittany Lions’ season was thrown into a state of total chaos last month by the scandal that took down iconic coach Joe Paterno and high-ranking members of Penn State’s administrative structure, including PSU Athletic Director Tim Curley. Football ceased to matter in State College, Pennsylvania, when the news of the scandal hit home. A close-knit college town was devastated by the allegations levied against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, a trusted Paterno lieutenant dating back to JoePa’s first year as PSU’s head coach in 1966. Sandusky was charged with numerous counts of sexual abuse toward minors. Moreover, a grand jury charged Curley and fellow PSU administrator Gary Schultz (who was in charge of the school’s police force) with perjury and the failure to notify police of Sandusky’s alleged acts. This series of events has shocked and saddened the nation, but especially the Penn State community. Players who were recruited by Paterno have had to muddle through November under interim boss Tom Bradley, and they’re now rudderless as this bowl game approaches.

Football should, in an ideal world, be the focus of this game. Houston and Penn State offer a fascinating contrast in styles: Houston with its high-octane spread passing game, Penn State with its commitment to hard-nosed defense. However, the only real consideration in this contest is how the players on both sides will deal with conflicting emotions swirling inside their minds. The team that centers itself is the team that will start the Jan. 2 bowl parade on a winning note.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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