Nittany Lions hope to neutralize Cougars, Keenum

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Silas Redd, above, and the Lions' running game could help slow down Case Keenum. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Johnny Unitas couldn't do it. Neither could Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees.

No matter how accurate and gifted the quarterback, he can't throw a touchdown pass when he's standing on the sideline. So the best way for No. 24 Penn State to neutralize a recordsetting QB like Houston's Case Keenum in Monday's TicketCity Bowl should be as obvious as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac's face.

The Nittany Lions need to run the ball, early, often and effectively. Move the chains. Run lots of time off the clock. Make the most productive passer in the history of college football a virtual spectator.

"I think it's really important," Penn State tailback Silas Redd said when asked if controlling the ball was a key to his team's success against Keenum and the explosive Cougars. "A big part of our game plan is to run the ball, eat some of that clock and keep their offense off the field. They can't score if they're not on the field."

Well, maybe the Houston offense can't, but its defense can, on safeties, interceptions and fumble returns for touchdowns. That makes it even more important for Redd and Co. to not only gain yards and dominate time of possession, but to protect the ball.

"No turnovers is another major goal of ours," Redd said of Part 2 of the hoped-for winning formula for the underdog Lions. "We can't afford to give the ball away."

On paper, this intriguing matchup of contrasting styles and philosophies figures to pit Penn State's superb defense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in four categories, against 20th-ranked Houston's pinball offense, with Keenum the triggerman of an attack that leads the country in scoring average (50.8 points per game), total offense (599 yards per game) and passing yards (443.8).

And it very well could come down to how often All-America defensive tackle Devon Still and his buddies are able to sack, harass, intercept or otherwise pester Keenum into one of those bad days even the most productive quarterbacks experience.

Even though he passed for 373 yards and two touchdowns in the Conference USA championship game against Southern Missisippi on Dec. 3, Keenum was picked off twice, one of which was returned for a late touchdown. Keenum had an even worse outing in the 2009 Armed Forces Bowl, when he was intercepted six times in a 47-20 loss to Air Force.

"We're going to approach him like any other guy," Penn State's other starting defensive tackle, Jordan Hill, said of Keenum. "We're definitely going to get after him. We're going to have to hit him a couple of times and get his attention.

"If we just play our game, and play with enthusiasm, it shouldn't be that bad of a day."

Still said he and the rest of the Penn State defense have paid particular attention to the tape of Houston's loss to Southern Mississippi, in which the Cougars scored a season-low 28 points and Keenum appeared, well, at least mortal.

"Southern Miss got after him pretty good," Still said. "They put pressure on him. They provided a blueprint for us that I think we can follow and even improve upon. Any quarterback can be hurried and hit."

But even if the Lions limit Keenum more than Southern Miss did, it might not be good enough unless the occasionally sputtering Penn State offense puts enough points on the board to hold up its end of the bargain. Interim coach Tom Bradley said yesterday that Rob Bolden will start, Shane McGregor will be the backup and Matt McGloin (concussion) was still being evaluated but is not expected to be available.

Very much working in Penn State's favor is its membership in the Big Ten, which week-in and week-out provides much sterner competition than the Cougars are used to seeing in C-USA. Penn State (9-3) is tied with Alabama for the eighth-toughest schedule in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision, its opponents going 74-49 (a 60.2 winning percent) against FBS teams. Houston's strength of schedule is much lower, with its opponents posting only a 67-76 mark (46.9) against FBS teams. The only nationally ranked team Houston (12-1) faced during the regular season was Southern Miss, while the Lions faced seven such rivals.

The inference, one which the Houston players very much resent, is that the Cougars have feasted on soft touches, while the Lions had to fight their way through a typical Big Ten gantlet that has toughened them, both on and off the field, in ways that should give them an edge in any game that comes down to crunch time.

"It's very important that we play well against Penn State," Keenum said. "I think certain people still have their minds made up about us, and we can't do anything about that except with how we play. How we play will be important to how we are perceived."

Translation: The Cougars, who have won by margins of 56-0 (Georgia State), 56-3 (East Carolina), 63-28 (Marshall), 73-34 (Rice), 56-13 (UAB) and 73-17 (Tulane), will try to earn their respect by putting up as many points as they possibly can against a heavyweight such as Penn State.

Replacing McGloin with Bolden doesn't figure to help the Lions' offense, but maybe it won't matter much if the veteran offensive line of tackles Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, guards Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell and center Matt Stankiewitch opens enough holes for Redd (1,188 yards rushing), Stephfon Green, Curtis Dukes and short-yardage fullback Michael Zordich to limit Keenum's opportunities to do damage.

"If you have a team running 60 or 70 times a game, that's just power football. It wears you down," Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar said of what he hopes - expects - to see from his offensive teammates. "I'd rather face a [finesse] team [like Houston] than one that just jams the ball down your throat with a ground-and-pound game."

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