Penn State Vs. Houston, TicketCity Bowl 2012: Like Watching Different Sports

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 29: Rob Bolden #1 of the Penn State Nittany Lions hands the ball off to Silas Redd #25 against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the game on October 29, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Penn State and Houston virtually play two different sports. They will provide the ultimate contrast in styles when they face off in the Cotton Bowl for TicketCity Bowl 2012. Can Houston handle an even meaner defensive front than the one that just gashed them? Can Rob Bolden lead an offense that actually makes a play or two?

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

On Thursday, we saw two thoroughly enjoyable football games, though for the most part they were two completely different sports. Florida State-Notre Dame was half-football/half-rugby, an athletic slugfest and defensive struggle. Meanwhile, Baylor-Washington was half-football/half-relay race. All game long, ball-carriers were running in the open field without another defender visible on the television screen. The way those games were played, it was nearly impossible to envision teams from these two games on the same field. What the hell would happen if Baylor played Florida State? Cannot even fathom it.

To an extent, we get to find out how these two sports mesh today when rugby-esque Penn State faces off against track-esque Houston.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Penn State 9-3 24 26 67 4 62
Houston 12-1 20 22 9 66 77
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Penn State 67 4 85 35
Houston 10 46 34 44

Houston wants to throw, throw, throw and throw. They take almost silly chances on defense just so that, one way or another, they get the ball back sooner. They have a to-10 offense and a below average defense. Penn State, meanwhile, is the polar opposite, fielding a top-five defense and an average-at-best offense. The Nittanies will go as far as their defense will take them; any offensive gains are nearly accidental.

The numbers see this game as a complete tossup, though the stench of Houston's performance against Southern Miss' active defense makes me lean toward Penn State a bit. Regardless, to say this game represents a contrast in styles pretty much ends all future use of the term. There is no greater contrast than this.

When Penn State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Penn State Offense 67 75 73 67 66 48 82
Houston Defense 66 67 57 84 86 83 83
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Penn State Offense 64.1% 91 38.4% 33
Houston Defense 61.1% 50 23.6% 88
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

One does have to hand it to Houston: they make things exciting. They're fast, they swarm to the ball, and they take risks. And perhaps most importantly, they have improved, both from 2010 to 2011 and from September to November.

Houston Defense (Def. F/+ ranking, 2010): 111th
Houston Defense (Def. F/+ ranking, 2011): 66th

Houston Defense (first 5 games, 2011): 28.5
Houston Defense (last 8 games, 2011): 23.7

The Cougars racked up 102 tackles for loss (top five in the country), intercepted 18 passes (top 10) and broke up 55 more (top 10). Linebacker Sammy Brown led the country with 28 tackles for loss, and seven other players had at least four each. Phillip Steward and D.J. Hayden each defended 11 passes, and eight other players had at least three each. They make big plays. They also allow a lot of big plays, and they can be pushed around quite a bit. That's exactly what Penn State will try to do.

Penn State's quarterback situation has been rather messy in 2011, with Matt McGloin performing better than Rob Bolden against bad teams (64 percent completion rate, 9.5 yards per pass, six touchdowns, no interceptions) and imploding against good ones (42 percent, 4.4 yards per pass, zero touchdowns, two interceptions) and Bolden failing to show any serious progress in his sophomore season. It got messier in the offseason when McGloin got a concussion during a locker room fight with receiver Curtis Drake; he was not cleared to play, meaning it's Bolden's job. He is a little more poised and less prone to mistakes, but he is also less prone to doing anything actually positive.

Expect a heavy doss of running back Silas Redd (230 carries, 1,188 yards, plus-1.5 Adj. POE), then. Even the Penn State run game was only decent to above average in 2011, but with a line that ranks 32nd in Adj. Line Yards, running is still the strength, and they will do it until Houston stops them.

When Houston Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Houston Offense 9 5 9 16 9 24 8
Penn State Defense 4 5 11 15 3 14 3
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Houston Offense 43.2% 11 24.2% 7
Penn State Defense 62.9% 3 35.3% 14
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

By now, we know all about Case Keenum's exploits. He is the all-time FBS leader in passing yards. He has passed for over 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in three different seasons. He had put together a tremendous career even before 2011, but he painted his masterpiece this fall: 5,099 yards, a 72-percent completion rate (best of his career), 9.6 yards per pass (best), 45 touchdowns (best), and just five interceptions (best). Plus, he was sacked just 15 times (best). He threw picks in just three games and posted a passer rating above 150 in 11 of 13 contests. And of course, Houston scored all sorts of points -- at least 28 in all 13 games, at least 37 in 12, at least 48 in nine.

In 2011, Keenum also had his best set of toys surrounding him. Three receivers caught at least 70 passes (Tyron Carrier, Patrick Edwards, Justin Johnson), and two of them averaged at least 11 yards per target (Edwards and Johnson). Plus, in Charles Sims and Michael Hayes, he had two tremendously speedy running backs, capable both on the ground (combined: 1,489 yards, plus-31.7 Adj. POE) and as dump-off weapons (89 catches, 1,017 yards).

The main problem, of course: for all intents and purposes, the Houston offense was dominated by Southern Miss. Led by Cordarro Law, Golden Eagles linemen all but lived in the Houston backfield. Through a combination of pressure and no open receivers, Keenum was forced to constantly dump to his backs for short gains, and the running game was made completely nonexistent.

The other problem: Southern Miss didn't even have Devon Still. The senior tackle was incredible in 2011, posting 17 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks and leading a top-five defense. Penn State has playmakers at each level -- linemen Still, Jack Crawford and Jordan Hill, linebackers Gerald Hodges and Nate Stupar, and safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and corner D'Anton Lynn. Granted, Penn State has not faced an offense like this in a while (ever?), and the pure pace and sideline-to-sideline ferocity can take some adaptation time; if nothing else, Southern Miss knew how to prepare for such an offense in advance of their Conference USA title game. Penn State did not. But Houston better score some points early, because the clamps will likely tighten as the game wears on.

The Verdict

Houston by 0.7.

For reasons that need no elaboration, this has been a tough year for Penn State; of that, there is no question. But they can advance into their most uncertain offseason in decades with a bit of positivity if they can slow Houston down just enough, and score just enough points, to pull off a win in their first game at the Cotton Bowl since January 1, 1975. Houston, meanwhile, can erase the bitter taste of a blowout loss to Southern Miss that cost them both a conference title and a BCS bowl bid. To do so, however, they will have to handle an even better defensive front than the one they faced in their last game, and they must show they can stiffen against a sturdy run game. It may be difficult to imagine these two teams on the same field, but it's happening, and both teams have quite a bit to prove.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

In This Article

Teams
Players
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.