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December 27, 2007

Alamo Bowl: Penn State vs. Texas A&M

Alamo Bowl: Who has the edge? | Rivals.com Bowl Central | Bowl schedule, results

Penn State (8-4) vs. Texas A&M (7-5)
WHEN: 8 p.m., Saturday.
WHERE: Alamodome, San Antonio.
WEATHER: Domed stadium.
TV: ESPN (Chris Fowler will do play-by-play, with Doug Flutie and Craig James as analysts).
THE LINE: Penn State by 5.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Penn State 3-4, Texas A&M 3-4.
RECORD VS. BCS TOP 25: Penn State 1-2, Texas A&M 1-3.
BCS RANK: Penn State 33rd, Texas A&M N/A.
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Penn State 40th, Texas A&M second.
COACHES: Penn State - Joe Paterno (22-10-1 in bowls); Texas A&M - Gary Darnell (interim; 0-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It's Paterno on the sideline in a bowl, and how many more times is that going to happen?
KEY STATS: Penn State is No. 6 nationally in rush defense at 87.9 yards per game. Texas A&M is No. 12 nationally in rush offense at 215.6 yards per game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Penn State senior QB Anthony Morelli has a ton of physical tools, but - for whatever reason - his production hasn't been all that great in his career. A&M's pass defense has been awful, so is a big game in the offing for Morelli?

The Alamo Bowl has one of the more intriguing coaching matchups of the postseason longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno going against Texas A&M interim coach Gary Darnell.

A&M coach Dennis Franchione already is gone, replaced by Houston Texans offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. But Darnell who was Franchione's defensive coordinator will be the Aggies' head man for the bowl game.

This is Paterno's 500th game and 34th bowl as a head coach. It's the second bowl for Darnell, and both have come while he was an interim coach. He coached Florida in the 1989 Freedom Bowl after taking over in midseason from Galen Hall, for whom he had served as defensive coordinator. Darnell actually was the last head coach for Florida before it hired Steve Spurrier.

Ironically, Hall is Penn State's offensive coordinator now. He and Darnell remain friends, and Darnell even joked this week about their relationship. When asked about what he expected from Penn State's offense in the Alamo Bowl, Darnell responded, "Galen Hall has not told me yet. But he's going to get asked again."

Darnell also noted that the opponent (Washington) the last time he was the head coach in a bowl went on to win a portion of the national championship the next season. "I guess Coach Paterno will be getting excited" by that, Darnell joked.

Is there any extra motivation for Darnell coaching against Paterno?

"It's not extra motivation but it's a satisfying feeling, you know," he said. "If this would be my last football game to coach in, boy, what a great thing to be able to coach against Joe Paterno and in that environment."

The Alamo Bowl will conclude Paterno's 58th season at Penn State. He was hired as an assistant to Rip Engle in 1950, then became coach in 1966. He said again this week that retirement hasn't crossed his mind.

"I don't think about that," he said. "I just thank the good Lord that I'm able to stay this long. The profession we're in, you have to understand that they love you one day and two days later they don't. To be able to survive this long I think is a credit to the institution more than it is to me."

Alamo Bowl: Penn State vs. Texas A&M
Penn State run offense vs. Texas A&M run defense
EDGE: Penn State Senior tailback Rodney Kinlaw emerged from obscurity to rush for 1,186 yards and 19 TDs, and he has five 100-yard games this season. Backup tailback Evan Royster has had his moments, too. A&M's run defense is nothing special; four teams have run for at least 200 yards against the Aggies. LBs Mark Dodge and Misi Tupe need to make their presence known.
Penn State pass offense vs. Texas A&M pass defense
EDGE: Penn State Senior quarterback Anthony Morelli never has lived up to his high school hype, but he generally was steady this season. Still, he threw two TD passes and four picks in the Nittany Lions' four losses. Penn State has top-flight talent at wide receiver; too bad Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams are underutilized. That trio has combined for 133 receptions and 11 TDs. With their talent, it should be more like 175 receptions and 20 TDs. Maybe this will be a breakout game for them. A&M's pass defense has been atrocious. A&M has allowed 21 TD passes and has just seven picks. In addition, opposing quarterbacks are completing 62.6 percent of their passes against the Aggies.
Texas A&M run offense vs. Penn State run defense
EDGE: Penn State This is where the game will be won or lost by Texas A&M. The Aggies have to run the ball effectively with quarterback Stephen McGee and tailbacks Michael Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane. Goodson is a speed merchant, while Lane who has 16 TDs is a 270-pound battering ram between the tackles. Penn State has allowed just four foes to rush for 100 yards in a game but in those four (not so coincidentally, all losses), the Nittany Lions surrendered 181.8 yards per game and five rushing TDs (PSU allowed just seven rushing TDs this season). Each of the four teams that beat Penn State had an elite tailback: Illinois with Rashard Mendenhall, Michigan with Mike Hart, Michigan State with the Jehuu Caulcrick/Javon Ringer duo and Ohio State with Chris Wells. Penn State linebackers Dan Connor and Sean Lee have to play well.
Texas A&M pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense
EDGE: Penn State McGee's passing arm was unleashed against Texas, and his 362 yards and three passing TDs were the main reason the Aggies upset the Longhorns. It was just the second 300-yard game of his career for McGee, a junior. TE Martellus Bennett is A&M's most talented receiver, but he often drifts through games. No Aggies wide receiver scares anybody. Penn State's secondary generally has played well. CB Justin King has the most talent in the secondary, but he has been inconsistent this season.
Penn State special teams vs. Texas A&M special teams
EDGE: Penn State At first glance, you have to be impressed that Penn State kicker Kevin Kelly is 19 of 24 this season. But 13 of his makes have come from 29 yards or closer, and he is just 2-for-7 from beyond 40. While he struggles from long distance on field goals, Kelly does have a strong leg, as evidenced by his 19 touchbacks on kickoffs. Punter Jeremy Boone is a good one, averaging 42.2 yards per boot and having almost half of his 53 punts (23) downed inside the 20. Penn State has good return men in Williams for punts and A.J. Wallace on kickoffs; each has a return TD this season. But while the punt-coverage unit is good, the kick-coverage unit is awful, having allowed 26.5 yards per return and two TDs. Aggies kicker Matt Szymanski is just 14 of 24 this season, including 7-for-17 from 30 yards or longer. But like Kelly, Szymanski has been good on kickoffs, with 23 touchbacks. Punter Justin Brantley has averaged 42.9 per kick. Kerry Franks is an OK kick returner. The punt-coverage unit has been great, the punt-return and kick-coverage units mediocre.
Penn State coaching staff vs. Texas A&M coaching staff
EDGE: Penn State This is Joe Paterno's 34th bowl game, and he has won 22 of them. This is old hat for he and his staff. Gary Darnell is A&M's interim coach in the wake of the dismissal of Dennis Franchione.
Penn State will win if
There's no secret to what Penn State wants to do; its game plan is as plain as its uniforms: run the ball well on offense and stop the run on defense. Given the Nittany Lions' spotty run defense in their four losses, the latter is especially important.
Texas A&M will win if
The Aggies have to run the ball, or they have no shot. That means McGee, Lane and Goodson have to produce. In addition, the defense has to play better than usual. Getting pressure on Morelli who often crumbles when he faces a heavy pass rush also is important.
If Bennett shows up ready to play, he could be huge. Using play-action to throw to Bennett should be a bigger part of the Aggies' offense. With Franchione gone, perhaps it will be.
The picks
Huguenin's pick: Penn State 26-21
Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Penn State 24-17
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Penn State 17-16
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Penn State 20-17
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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