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December 31, 2006

Outback Bowl: Penn State vs. Tennessee

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The menu for the Outback Bowl has a little bit of everything for the college football fan.

First off, and not lost on bowl officials in Tampa, is the fact Tennessee and Penn State have legions of loyal fans. Once the matchup was set tickets sold out in four days, giving the Outback its sixth sellout in the past seven years.

The coaching matchup is a tasty appetizer. Penn State's Joe Paterno and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer rank in the top 10 among active coaches in winning percentage. They also have winning records in bowl games and lead programs that have storied bowl histories. As a matter of fact, each team enters this game with 24 bowl victories, tied for third all time.

The main course is a game featuring outstanding players for both teams - on both sides of the ball. The Vols placed offensive tackle Arron Sears and wide receiver Robert Meachem on the Associated Press All-America team. The Nittany Lions were honored with five AP All-America selections: linebackers Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor, defensive tackle Jay Alford, offensive tackle Levi Brown and punter Jeremy Kapinos.

It all adds up to a game that should be a full plate of action.

"I think they are outstanding," Fulmer said of the Nittany Lions. "They are No. 5 in the country in scoring defense, and ... you don't do that by accident. They've only given up 26 points in the last four ballgames against good opponents. They're good, and their linebackers are as good as anybody we've played in the conference.

"As I told our football team not to take anything away from Kentucky and Vanderbilt we're getting back into the real deal when we play these guys."

Catching on
A year-by-year look at the career of Tennessee receiver Robert Meachem, a former five-star prospect who had a breakout season in 2006:
Year No. Yards Avg. TDs
2004 25 459 18.4 4
2005 29 383 13.2 2
2006 67 1,265 18.9 11
There's no question that Penn State's front seven on defense can play with anybody. Fulmer is aware the Nittany Lions have shown they can stuff the run, while his team has been uncharacteristically lackluster on the ground.

"Our offensive front versus their defensive front and linebackers will be a challenge," Fulmer said. "We haven't been the kind of running football team during the course of the year that I would like to have been, or that Coach (David) Cutcliffe would like for us to be. That is a concern we still are working to address."

On the bright side for the Vols offense has been the play of quarterback Erik Ainge. In and out of the starting lineup as a sophomore, Ainge emerged this season with the return of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. The 6-foot-6 Ainge passed for 2,722 yards and 19 touchdowns, much of it to Meachem.

Meachem, a former Rivals.com five-star prospect out of Oklahoma, had struggled through some nagging injuries during his first two seasons and had done little for the Vols. But this has been his breakout season. He has a school record 1,265 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, pushing Ainge to new heights and taking pressure off the Vols running game.

Paterno has seen enough of Ainge and Meachem - both juniors - to know his defense will be tested.

"I think speed, obviously, is a problem for us," Paterno said. "They have, not only good speed, but wideout No. 3, Meachem, is an outstanding football player. They have an excellent quarterback who, I think, has thrown for over 200 yards the last eight or nine games. It is a good football team. They have only lost to three of the best teams in the country LSU by a couple of points, Florida by a couple of points and to Arkansas."

Penn State's losses didn't exactly come against chopped liver. The four teams that beat the Nittany Lions Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Notre Dame are 44-4.

Outback Bowl: Penn State (8-4) vs. Tennessee (9-3)
When: 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 1
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
TV info: ESPN (Mike Patrick, Todd Blackledge and sideline reporter Holly Rowe)
Penn State Nittany Lions
Conference: Big Ten
Record: 8-4, 5-3
Coach: Joe Paterno (362-121-3, 41st year)
Passing leader:Anthony Morelli (194 of 361, 2,227 yards, 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions)
Rushing leaders: Tony Hunt (246 carries, 1,228 yards, 11 TDs)
Receiving leaders: Deon Butler (45 receptions, 564 yards, two TDs), Jordan Norwood (41 receptions, 437 yards, two TDs)
Defensive leaders: LB Paul Posluszny (108 tackles, seven tackles for loss), LB Dan Connor (103 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss)
Tennessee Volunteers
Conference: Southeastern
Record: 9-3, 5-3
Coach: Phillip Fulmer (137-40, 15th year)
Passing leader: Erik Ainge (208 of 311, 2,722 yards, 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions)
Rushing leader: LaMarcus Coker (103 carries, 660 yards, four TDs)
Receiving leaders: Robert Meachem (67 receptions, 1,265 yards, 11 TDs)
Defensive leaders: S Jonathan Hefney (93 tackles, five interceptions), LB Jerod Mayo (82 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks)
Penn State running game vs. Tennessee run defense: The Nittany Lions rely on Tony Hunt. They have all season, and they will again against the Vols. He topped the 100-yard mark seven times this season, and if PSU is going right he'll carry about 25 times. Tennessee, normally stout against the run under defensive coordinator John Chavis, has struggled this season. The Vols rank 77th nationally in rushing defense, giving up 143.7 yards per game. Edge: Penn State
Penn State passing game vs. Tennessee pass defense: First-year starter Anthony Morelli simply hasn't been very accurate this season (53.7 completion percentage). He's completing less than 50 percent over the Nittany Lions' past four games. The Vols have an excellent secondary led by second-team All-SEC picks Jonathan Hefney and Jonathan Wade that produced 16 interceptions. Edge: Tennessee
Tennessee running game vs. Penn State run defense: The Vols haven't been able to keep running backs healthy this season, and they haven't received great offensive line play either. Consequently, this team known for its ground game has not been very good running the ball - ranking 94th nationally. The Nittany Lions have a solid front four and All-American linebackers Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor waiting to clean up behind them. PSU is 10th nationally in rush defense. Edge: Penn State
Tennessee passing game vs. Penn State pass defense: Without a running game, the Vols have morphed into a passing team and they've had great success in the air this season. Erik Ainge has been a revelation with the return of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Thanks to Ainge and All-American wide receiver Robert Meachem, the Vols rank 13th nationally in pass offense. The Nittany Lions are 47th in the country against the pass. They had great showings against pass-happy Purdue and top-ranked Ohio State, yet had their two worst outings against Big Ten also-rans Michigan State and Minnesota. Edge: Tennessee
Penn State coach Joe Paterno vs. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer: There's not much to quibble with on the resume of either of these coaches. Fulmer has squeezed a little more out of the talent he has this season, but Paterno long has been one of the game's best bowl coaches. Edge: Even
Penn State will win if: Tony Hunt gains more than 125 yards, and Penn State can keep Robert Meachem in check.
Tennessee will win if: It can run the ball enough to keep the Nittany Lions honest, and it can keep Hunt in check.
Injury situation: Penn State Joe Paterno (broken leg) hopes to be on the sideline. OT John Shaw (knee) and TE Patrick Hall (knee) are probable. Tennessee None.
Worth noting: Penn State is 24-12-2 in bowl games, 21-10-1 under Paterno. The Vols are 24-21 in bowl games, including 7-6 under Fulmer. UT missed out on a bowl game last season for the first time under Fulmer. This will be the fifth meeting between the teams, and the third in the postseason. The series is tied 2-2. The Nittany Lions won both bowl matchups, which came in the 1990s, with the Vols winning regular-season games in 1971-72. Penn State is 12-2 all time when Tony Hunt rushes for 100 yards, including 6-1 this season. Paterno suffered a broken leg on Nov. 4 when he was hit on the sideline during the Wisconsin game. He underwent surgery on Nov. 5 and missed Penn State's game with Temple on Nov. 12 (the first game he had missed since 1977). He coached from the press box for the regular-season finale against Michigan State. Robert Meachem's 1,265 receiving yards are a new single-season record at Tennessee. The Vols are one of the nation's best teams in the red zone this season, scoring 90.7 percent of the time. Both teams have punters among the best in the nation. Tennessee's Britton Colquitt was first-team All-SEC with a 45.0 average (eighth nationally), and Penn State's Jeremy Kapinos was a third-team All-American by the Associated Press with a 42.2-yard average (24th nationally).
Line:Tennessee by 4
Prediction: Tennessee 22, Penn State 17.
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Tennessee 20-14
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Penn State 17-16
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Tennessee 24-6
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Penn State 24-21
Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.



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