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Friday, December 28, 2007

Alamo Bowl Preview

Valero Alamo Bowl
Penn State Nittany Lions (8-4) vs. Texas A&M Aggies (7-5)
Saturday, December 29th, 8:00 PM ESPN

Two traditional college powerhouses with varying levels of sideline stability meet in this year’s Valero Alamo Bowl on Saturday night at 8 PM.

Joe Paterno leads the Penn State Nittany Lions to San Antonio for his 33rd bowl game as Penn State’s head coach. Texas A&M will be led by defensive coordinator Gary Darnell due to head coach Dennis Franchione’s resignation at season's end. Houston Texans assistant Mike Sherman will take over at A&M next season.

Franchione failed to meet expectations during his five-year tenure in College Station and was winless in the Aggie's two bowl game appearances. They lost 38-7 to Tennessee at the Cotton Bowl three seasons ago and suffered a 45-10 loss to Cal in last year’s Holiday Bowl.

It’s difficult to say which Aggies team will show up on Saturday night. Texas A&M blasted off to a 5-1 start thanks mostly to a weak non-conference schedule. A&M did top 260 yards rushing in four of their first six games. After that fast start, the Aggies slumped in conference play and lost 3 straight to Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri before upsetting in-state rival Texas to finish the season.

Texas A&M hooked the Horns with a more aggressive attack, focused on using the pass to set up the run. Quarterback Stephen McGee notched a career-high 362 passing yards in the win as A&M tallied 533 total yards of offense and 38 points against the Longhorns.

McGee led the Aggies in rushing this year ahead of speedy running back Mike Goodson and 275-pound goal line specialist Jorvorskie Lane. Tight end Martellus Bennett, a top NFL prospect, was McGee’s top target through the air.

Defensively the Aggies have been very good at stopping the run this season. They are more susceptible to the pass, something A&M’s late-season opponents exploited. The Aggies went 2-4 in the second half of the season against Big XII foes, letting opposing quarterbacks complete 67 percent of their passes and throw for 13 touchdowns against just one interception in their last 6 games.

It will be interesting to see whether Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli can take advantage of Texas A&M’s weak secondary. Morelli threw 18 touchdowns this season, but 10 of those came against cupcakes Florida International, Buffalo and Temple.

The Penn State offense relied heavily on the run against Big Ten conference opponents. The Lions ran the ball 40-plus times in six of its final seven games. The only exception in that span was Penn State's loss to Ohio State, in which Morelli was forced to throw more in an effort to comeback from their early deficit.

The Lion's running attack is led by Rodney Kinlaw, who stepped up after the dismissal of running back Austin Scott and proved himself worthy of being Penn State’s main man in his senior year. Kinlaw posted five 100-yard games on the ground in his 1,186-yard season.

As usual, the key to most of Penn State's victories was their stout defense. The Nittany Lions finished second in the nation with 45 quarterback sacks, led by defensive end Maurice Evans who recorded 12 1/2 sacks on the year. Middle linebacker Dan Connor is the star of Lion's defense. The Butkus Award finalist led the Big Ten with 136 tackles this year. Connor continued Penn State's tradition of great linebackers and marked the third straight season that a Nittany Lion was a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker. Junior Sean Lee might be a contender for next year’s hardware after being involved in 124 tackles this season.

The Alamo Bowl will mark JoePa's 500th game as Penn State’s head coach, one of many incredible accomplishments in his coaching career. Paterno has won more than twice as many bowl games as he’s lost during his run at PSU, including last year's Outback Bowl and the 2006 Orange Bowl.

Penn State and Texas A&M also met in the 1999 Alamo Bowl. The Nittany Lions were victorious in that meeting beating the Aggies 24-0. Expect this year's contest to be a much closer game, the key will be whether Penn State can run the ball successfully against A&M's defensive front. If the Aggies defense can control the line of scrimmage and force Anthony Morelli to beat them with his arm things could get interesting. Morelli has the arm strength and ability to stretch the field, but as most Lion fans know he has been very inconsistent at times this season.