Penn State football fine-tuning Cotton Bowl offense with new play caller, recycled parts

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STATE COLLEGE — Penn State’s stop-and-go offense should own a different feel for its bowl game.

By rearranging and tweaking its same parts.

The big question remains: Will it be more consistent and fluid against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 28 than it was against most of the Big Ten?

Maybe the month away to heal bodies and adjust to a new offensive leader will help a unit that produced points in bunches, only to disappear for long stretches.

For starters, there will be a new playcaller for Penn State’s third New Year’s Six bowl game in four years.

As expected, tight end coach Tyler Bowen (who has offensive coordinator experience) will be directing the attack, head coach James Franklin confirmed during Friday’s bowl media day event. Also, Kirk Campbell, a team offensive analyst, has been named the interim quarterbacks coach.

Bowen, 30, was a graduate assistant coach under Franklin at Maryland and at Penn State (2014). Bowen then coached under Joe Moorhead at Fordham and eventually took over there as offensive coordinator.

Fordham led the Patriot League and ranked fourth in the FCS in total offense and scoring offense under Bowen in 2016.

Now, he will replace Ricky Rahne on an interim basis as Penn State continues to search for a permanent offensive coordinator hire. Rahne left after the regular season to become the head coach at Old Dominion. 

Franklin offered no timetable as to when an offensive coordinator hire would be announced. 

“They both have a lot of energy for sure. I would say T-Bo brings a different kind of swagger to the game,” quarterback Sean Clifford said of Bowen. “Coach Rahne is a big … I wouldn’t say a ‘yeller’ … but he encouraged loudly.

“T-Bo, he’s not necessarily going to yell, but he brings a lot of wisdom to the offense. I know he helped out Coach Rahne calling the plays anyway.  They were in each other’s ears the whole game. T-Bo is definitely somebody I have a lot of trust in.”

Receiver KJ Hamler said this about Bowen: “His enthusiasm … he’s electric, kind of like me. A little bit. … He’s a cool laid back guy and he knows his stuff.”  

The interim offensive coordinator will be calling plays for a hopefully healthy Clifford. The redshirt sophomore was knocked out of the Ohio State game and didn’t play in the finale against Rutgers because of an undisclosed lower-body injury.

Clifford admitted to not being completely healed yet, but he is taking most of the practice reps. Penn State’s offense, of course, relies on a running, fully-mobile QB.

Franklin said he still expects his quarterback to be a full-go on Dec. 28.

“It didn’t take as long as I assumed to feel back to normal but, at the same time, there were some necessary procedures that needed to happen to get back to normal,” Clifford said.

Will KJ Hamler, others leave for NFL?

And though Clifford will be throwing to his usual top targets (receivers Hamler and Jahan Dotson and tight end Pat Freiermuth), there may be a different feel to it. Will Hamler’s effort be affected if this is, indeed, his last game as a Nittany Lion?

He said he will wait until after the Cotton Bowl to reveal his decision on whether he will return for his junior season or leave early for the NFL Draft. He talked as if the magnitude of his choice has weighed on him.

“I don’t really like to ask people for the help, I just really like to make the decisions on my own,” Hamler said. “I’m 20 years old now. I’m not the 17-year-old KJ who came (to Penn State) as a freshman limping on a messed-up knee.

“As a grown man, I’ve got to make grown-man decisions. Like I said, it’s a business.”

Other Lions who haven’t yet announced their college/pro plans include cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, defensive end Shaka Toney and safety Lamont Wade.

Will Noah Cain see the field?

And then, there are the running backs.

Penn State rotated four of them this season, three serving as starters at various points. Freshman Noah Cain became the fan favorite for his production and hard running in the middle of the season but never truly returned after being injured at Michigan State.

Journey Brown took over impressively in November, but Cain finally appears ready to roll again, Franklin said.

More: Penn State football recruiting update: Can you ever have enough star running backs?

“He looked really good (Thursday) in practice,” Franklin said. “He looked normal. Where, like before, you’d catch him limping at times and things like that. 

“I think he’s good to go now. (But) if he’s not starting, you guys will rip my butt about that after the game,” Franklin said, smiling to reporters.

“But the great thing is you see Journey’s stepped up and Ricky (Slade) and Devyn (Ford), and we’re in a good situation there.”

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