Despite disappointment, Penn State faces tough challenge in bowl game

Penn State dropped to a less prominent bowl game – likely because bowls wanted to stay clear of controversy surrounding the university – but finds itself in what looks to be a tough matchup against Houston in the TicketCity Bowl.

The TicketCity Bowl, which will be the first game of the new year, will be played at noon ET on Jan. 2 at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas. The bowl had the seventh choice of teams from the Big Ten, meaning Iowa (7-5), Ohio State (6-6) and Northwestern (6-6) – all of which lost to Penn State this season – were picked ahead of Penn State (9-3).

“We believe our PennState-Houston match-up is one of the best of this year's bowl lineup,” TicketCity Bowl CEO Tom Starr said.

Some Nittany Lions as well as many fans voiced displeasure via Twitter of the bowl destination.

“I think we feel a little disappointed that we got passed up by some teams that we beat in the Big Ten, but I think we’re ready for the challenge,” senior safety Drew Astorino told the Big Ten Network.

Despite negativity from some of the Penn State community, the game itself poses an intriguing matchup.

The Cougars (12-1), who ranked No. 19 in Sunday night's BCS standings, appeared headed for a bid to a BCS bowl game before losing to Southern Mississippi, 49-28, in Saturday’s Conference USA Championship Game. Their offense ranks first in the nation, averaging 599 yards per game and is led by Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum, who holds the NCAA record in career passing yards (18,865), passing touchdowns (152) and completions (1,501).

The senior quarterback, who threw nine touchdown passes in a single game earlier this season, poses a difficult challenge for Penn State’s defense, which ranks fifth in the nation in scoring defense (15.67 points per game) and 10th in total yardage allowed (300.92 points per game).

“He’s an excellent quarterback,” Astorino said of Keenum. “They’ve been throwing the ball all over the field. So we’ll definitely have our hands full.”

Penn State, which checked in at No. 22 in the BCS standings, is 2-0 all-time against Houston. The two schools have not played since 1977.

“I think this team has done an excellent job,” Astorino said of the adversity the Lions have faced recently. “We’ve stuck together through the last three weeks, and I think we’ve went through more than any other college team ever has, so I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of this group.”

--Jake Kaplan