For a team that had been so much fun to watch, the Cotton Bowl was a fitting scene for the season’s biggest celebration.
It was a year ago today (Dec. 28), when James Franklin and the Nittany Lions celebrated capturing their second New Year’s 6 bowl victory during his tenure with the team; two years earlier, Penn State knocked off Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.
There were plenty of reasons why that victory was memorable, both at the time and now.
For many fans, it’d represent the first trip to the Cotton Bowl, Penn State was playing Memphis — an upstart team playing in its biggest game in the history of its program — and with the game being played indoors, there was no chance of weather slowing down Penn State’s dynamic offense.
Everything surrounding the game enhanced the experience.
Leading up to the contest, fans enjoyed plenty of hospitality in the area. And without exception, every Memphis fan that folks traveling with the Alumni Association ran into were overly pleasant. Adding to the fun was that this was the first time that editor John Black covered the Cotton Bowl during his legendary career.
The last time Penn State played in the Cotton Bowl was 1975 (to cap the 1974 season), and creator of The Football Letter, Ride Riley, was still authoring the publication at the time. Likewise, this was the first time photographer Steve Manuel covered the game for The Football Letter, and you can check out Manuel’s all-star photos from the game and trip online.
The game itself was highly entertaining, took place in one of the most impressive stadiums in the world, and provided an opportunity for the Nittany Lions to complete their third 11-win season in four years.
And that’s exactly what they did.
In The Football Letter, Black wrote:
“In a contest that proved highly exciting to fans of each team, No. 10 Penn State emerged victorious against the 17th-ranked Memphis Tigers, 53–39, in a contest that set a Classic record for combined points by both teams—92.
The crowd-pleasing contest matched Memphis’ explosive passing attack against State’s explosive rushing attack.
Just as in each previous Classic, the Lions’ opponent scored first and clung to an early lead, until the Nittany Lions’ offense got untracked and their defense took control.
Ultimately, Penn State ground out a school bowl record 396 yards for a Cotton Bowl record-tying five rushing
touchdowns— two each by Journey Brown and Noah Cain and one by Devyn Ford.”
Nobody knew it at the time — and certainly nobody would have any reason to believe — that the Cotton Bowl would be Brown’s last game ever. The emerging star running back retired from football earlier this fall because of a medical condition.
The Cotton Bowl was also Micah Parsons’ last game as a Nittany Lion, as he dominated the field in a way that no previous defensive player might’ve ever done. Parsons tied his career high with 14 tackles, forced two fumbles, hurried Memphis quarterback Brady White into throwing a pick-6 that teammate Garrett Taylor returned for a touchdown, and generally disrupted the Tigers’ offense all game. Parsons opted out of 2020 because of concerns for COVID-19 and is expected to be a top pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
And while players’ families could attend most home games this year, the Cotton Bowl was the last time that fans watched and cheered on star tight end Pat Freiermuth, along with many other Nittany Lions, in person. Similar to Brown’s trajectory, nobody could have imagined that after the Cotton Bowl, it’d be at least a year before fans could attend a game in person.
This is all to say that the 2019 Cotton Bowl will prove to be memorable not just for what Penn State accomplished that season, but for the moment in time that the victory represented for the program and for its players.
And perhaps more than anything, the Cotton Bowl serves as a reminder to stop and appreciate what’s happening in front of you, at that moment. Because often the future, is at best, unknown.
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