Journey Brown ran for 202 yards with two long touchdowns, Garrett Taylor returned an interception 15 yards for a score after another big play by All-America linebacker Micah Parsons and No. 13 Penn State beat No. 15 Memphis 53-39 on Saturday in the highest-scoring Cotton Bowl ever.
While Penn State (11-2, No. 10 CFP) gave up its most points and yards all season against the big-play Group of Five Tigers, Parsons was pulling down quarterback Brady White, who flipped the ball right into the hands of Taylor. That put the Nittany Lions up 45-36 in the final minute of the third quarter, only three plays after Brown had been stopped short on a fourth-and-1.
"For our defense to come back and what you probably consider a sudden-change situation, and be able to get that play, I think it was a huge momentum play," coach James Franklin said.
American Athletic Conference champion Memphis (12-2, No. 17 CFP) played its first game under coach Ryan Silverfield. The offensive line coach was promoted when Mike Norvell left after four seasons to become Florida State's coach earlier this month.
"It just didn't end the way we wanted to," Silverfield said. "I have to do a better job as a head coach to make sure all three phases are prepared. That's 100% on me. That won't happen moving forward."
White was 32-of-51 passing for 454 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Patrick Taylor Jr. and Kenneth Gainwell both had rushing touchdowns for the Tigers, but the rest of their points came on a Cotton Bowl-record six field goals by Riley Patterson, including a record-long 51-yarder.
The Tigers finished with 542 total yards, but White was sacked a season-high six times and didn't throw a touchdown for the first time since the season opener. Two of those sacks were by Parsons, who finished with 14 tackles.
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"We go against him all the time ... nobody prepares and prepares for those opportunities and those moments more than this guy does," Brown said of Parsons, who was sitting right by him.
Freshman running back Noah Cain added 92 yards and two touchdowns rushing for Penn State, which won for the 30th time in its 50 bowl appearances.
The Nittany Lions had 529 total yards. Brown got his 202 rushing yards on 16 carries, including a tackle-shredding 32-yard touchdown early and a 56-yard score when he went up the middle virtually untouched.
Memphis: The Tigers wrapped up the most successful four-year stretch in school history with 38 victories, but this senior class never won a bowl game. Memphis has been to a bowl in each of the past six seasons, a school record, but has lost its last five bowl games.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions had allowed only 14.1 points per game in the regular season, and the most yards allowed had been 462. Penn State played in its third New Year's Six game in four years and finished with 11 wins for the third time in that span.
Memphis awaits a final decision from White, a 23-year-old former graduate transfer, on whether he will return for his final season of eligibility next year. The Tigers played the Cotton Bowl without two of their seniors -- tight end Joey Magnifico (knee) and left tackle Scott Dill (left team). Gainwell finished his redshirt freshman season with 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing. Silverfield's first regular-season game as coach comes Sept. 5 at home in the season opener against Arkansas State.
Penn State could return all of its starting offensive skill players, including quarterback Sean Clifford and Brown, since none was a senior this season. Parsons was a sophomore. Coach James Franklin, who finished his sixth season with the Nittany Lions, has a new contract through 2022. Penn State's 2020 opener is Sept. 5 at home against Kent State.