In almost any other season, winning nine games and falling just short of playing for the Big Ten title would earn a program like Penn State a spot in one of the conference’s more sought-after bowl destinations.
For the 24th-ranked Nittany Lions, though, this was a season unlike any other.
In the wake of one of the ugliest scandals in college sports history, Penn State’s relegation to the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas on Monday still provides an intriguing matchup as one of the nation’s top defenses tries to slow record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum and No. 20 Houston.
Joe Paterno surpassed Eddie Robinson for the most victories in Division I history as the Nittany Lions (9-3) ran their winning streak to seven Oct. 29, but just days later, football games became a mere subplot in Happy Valley.
Former longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested Nov. 5 and charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing eight boys, a number of alleged victims that has only grown. Paterno, though not legally implicated in the case, was fired by week’s end, his legacy permanently scarred for doing nothing more than reporting to his superiors a 2002 incident witnessed by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary.
That left defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to take over for one of the sport’s coaching giants. The Nittany Lions went into their Nov. 26 regular-season finale at Wisconsin knowing a win would still put them in the inaugural Big Ten title game, but a defense that carried an underperforming offense all season finally caved in a 45-7 loss.
With the Sandusky scandal continuing to dominate headlines, the Gator, Capital One and Insight bowls passed on the chance to select Penn State. That left the fledgling TicketCity Bowl, in just its second year, to snap up the Nittany Lions.
“I can honestly say that we didn’t even think about (the scandal),” TicketCity Bowl president Tom Starr said. “We just looked at all the positive sides - a great school, great legacy, players that deserve the reward.”
While Penn State’s bowl tumble certainly included some unique circumstances, its opponent in Dallas easily could have been playing elsewhere as well.
Houston rolled through its regular season unbeaten, climbing as high as seventh in the AP poll ahead of its Conference USA championship game date with Southern Mississippi.
A win would have put the Cougars into their first BCS bowl, but they hardly looked worthy of the national stage against the Golden Eagles. After erasing an early 14-point hole to pull even midway through the second quarter, Houston (12-1) fell apart the rest of the way in a 49-28 loss.
“It was in our grasp,” said Keenum, who added two TD passes to make his NCAA-record total 152 but also threw two interceptions, “and we let it slip away.”
Struggling against Southern Miss’ 70th-ranked pass defense doesn’t bode well for Keenum’s prospects in Dallas. Penn State is fifth in the nation against the pass (162.2 yards allowed per game), and the nine TDs it gave up through the air are tied for the fifth-fewest.
Keenum, however, threw nine TDs against Rice on Oct. 27.
The downside to the Cougars’ breakout season was it helped Kevin Sumlin emerge as one of the nation’s hottest coaching candidates, and with many big-name programs - Penn State included - looking, he finally listened.
Sumlin accepted Texas A&M’s offer on Dec. 10, and won’t coach Houston in the TicketCity Bowl.
“I thought that I would be a distraction to their success,” Sumlin said. “I was not walking out on them, but what I was doing was giving them a chance to be successful.”
Tony Levine will serve as the team’s interim head coach.
“When you have a head coach, the one thing that you ask is that you leave the program in better shape than what you inherited,” Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades said. “And there’s no question that Coach Sumlin did that.”
Penn State’s search continues - Bradley is seen as an unlikely full-time candidate due to his history with the program - but whoever gets the job may have some internal issues to sort out.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any stranger, quarterback Matt McGloin suffered a seizure and possible concussion after getting into a fracas with wide receiver Curtis Drake following the Nittany Lions’ Dec. 17 practice. It’s unclear if McGloin will be medically cleared to face the Cougars.
Backup Rob Bolden, meanwhile, was cited for stealing a $2 bottle of Gatorade from a campus dining hall that same weekend. The incident won’t affect his playing time, according to Bradley.
Penn State’s quarterback issues, however, could open the door for Paul Jones to make his collegiate debut. A highly touted recruit two years ago, Jones redshirted in 2010 and was academically ineligible for the fall semester.
With those issues in mind, along with the fact McGloin and Bolden threw a combined nine TDs and nine interceptions, Penn State will likely try to get Silas Redd going early against the Cougars. Redd averaged just 11.7 carries in his last three game - 15 fewer than he averaged in October - but should see a heavier load against a Houston defense that ranks 78th in the nation against the run (171.8 ypg).
While the Cougars will be eager to send Keenum out on a high note, the senior himself is likely itching for some postseason redemption. In three bowl games, Keenum has three TD passes and seven interceptions - six of which came in his most recent, a 47-20 loss to Air Force in the 2009 Armed Forces Bowl.
A 2008 win over the Falcons in that same bowl is Houston’s lone postseason victory since 1980.
Penn State, which lost 37-24 to Florida in the 2011 Outback Bowl, hasn’t dropped back-to-back bowl games since 1975-76.