Penn State LB Micah Parsons backs up boasts in Cotton Bowl win

ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the week leading up to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Penn Statelinebacker Micah Parsons seemingly told anybody who listened that he was going to win the game's defensive player of the game award.

He told defensive coordinator Brent Pry. He told running back Journey Brown, jokingly jawing with his teammate during Thursday's practice.

On Saturday, in a game dominated by offensive fireworks, Parsons made good on his word with an exceptional performance to help lead the No. 10 Nittany Lions to a 53-39 win over No. 17 Memphisat AT&T Stadium. The 92 combined points were a Cotton Bowl record, surpassing the 83 total points when Michigan State beat Baylor 42-41 in 2015.

Parsons, an ESPN and Associated Press first-team All-American, was a marvel. The sophomore had a game-high 14 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry that led to a Penn State interception return for a touchdown en route to the game's McKnight Trophy (outstanding defensive player).

"On the biggest stage, he's going to play his absolute best," Pry said. "That's just who he is. He's always risen to the occasion in any competitive moment, and he did that today."

Parsons' impact was welcome on a day when an explosive Memphis offense kept coming at Penn State. The Tigers, led by quarterback Brady White (454 passing yards) and receiver Damonte Coxie (132 receiving yards) actually out gained the Lions 542-529.

From the game's first drive, Parsons showed why he was a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker. A 10-yard tackle for loss on a reverse stifled Memphis' first drive, he blitzed and pressured White multiple times and displayed impressive closing speed when pursuing ball carriers.

His most impactful play came late in the third quarter, with Penn State clinging to a two-point lead. He burst through the line of scrimmage untouched on a stunt to corral White, who errantly flipped the ball forward into the hands of safety Garrett Taylor, who returned it 15 yards for a touchdown and a 45-36 Penn State lead.

"We wanted to challenge them up top with some pressure, obviously with them chipping our defensive ends," Parsons said. "I was able to get my opportunity and make the most of it, and I'm grateful for it."

Offensively, the Nittany Lions were able to run seemingly at will, compiling 396 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Brown (202 yards, two touchdowns) earned the game's Sanford Trophy for outstanding offensive player. The game marked the first time since 1994 that Penn State scored at least 50 points against a ranked team, and just the third time in program history.

Multiple teammates sang the praises of Parsons, who will be one of the nation's top returning defensive players going into the 2020 season. After his performance Saturday -- which Parsons called his best game -- he was asked about the potential of becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate next season.

"I think the door is open," he said. "It's a chance that [with] a lot of hard work and things like that, I've got a chance to do. Just being able to get to the table would be an extreme honor and extreme blessing for myself and the program."

Pry emphasized Parsons still has much improvement to make in several areas -- "fundamentals, still learning the game, still learning the position" -- and teammates agree he has just scratched the surface, but if he does take that next step?

"You're going to have to show me a defensive player that's better than Micah Parsons going into the next football season," Pry said.

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