ARLINGTON, Texas — Micah Parsons knew the biggest game of his Penn State career was coming a week ago.
Each day in practice leading up to Saturday’s Cotton Bowl he told defensive coordinator Brent Pry that he would win the game’s most valuable defensive player.
“That’s the type of mindset I have,” Parsons said. “You’ve got to know before it happens. You can’t be surprised by your moment. You’ve got to know your moment’s there. And when you’re on the biggest stage it’s not time to crumble, it’s time to shine.”
Parsons then really knew that performance was coming when he noticed something on the bus ride to AT&T Stadium Saturday morning.
It was raining.
So he texted his mother and father. He said his biggest games always seem to come in the rain — no matter that the Nittany Lions’ run-and-gun victory over Memphis, a 53-39 affair, was played inside.
“I said the storm was coming,” he said, smiling in the postgame interview room, thinking back to the moment.
And then the Cotton Bowl started against these Tigers and Parsons, the sophomore from Harrisburg, blew up a reverse for a 10-yard loss.
Then he made a couple of more tackles.
And his Lions and their struggling defense needed something, anything, to help them keep up with Memphis’ pace and hold onto a narrow lead.
That’s when Parson truly began feeling that he would produce the game of his life — one of the best defensive performances by a Penn State player in a bowl game.
His stat line: 14 tackles (seven solo), three tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups.
Along with the play that may have ultimately saved Penn State.
Go back to the final minute of the third quarter when he flew through the line to wrap up Memphis quarterback Brady White once more. As he pulled him to the ground White flung the ball desperately — and right into the arms of safety Garrett Taylor, who returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
The Lions suddenly had the breathing room they would never give up again. In particular, Parsons’ speed around scrimmage was more devastating then ever before.
“There’s these guys who are clutch guys,” Pry said when asked about Parsons in the winning locker room. “He wants his number called. He beat me up all game to blitz his ass.”
Then again, despite being named an All-American, this game was Parsons’ first with multiple game-wrecking plays.
He did earn defensive MVP honors and further set himself up for even grander possibilities in 2020.
Pry reiterated the belief that Parsons still can improve substantially as a college player with a list of improvements ranging from fundamentals to position experience to work ethic.
His teammates see that continued upside, too. They teased him about still failing to hold onto his first college interception — like the ball he couldn’t quite pick off the turf early in the game, then another he dropped late he possibly could have returned for a score.
“He’s just starting to learn football,” said junior defensive end Shaka Toney. “Thing is, he’s (still) just playing off a lot of instincts right now. It’s scary to see that he hasn’t gotten to where he needs to be as a football player.”
How good can he become?
“We could see him as the No. 1 overall (pick in the 2021 NFL Draft), if we want to be real about it,” Toney said. “You can’t teach the things he’s doing out here. I don’t believe there’s a linebacker in the country next year that should be able to compete with Micah.”
His coordinator and position coach echoed that. Already, it all plays into next fall for this team, this defense, this linebacker.
“Right now,” Pry said, “you’re going to have show me somebody going into next season who’s a better defensive player than Micah Parsons.”