For the first time since Todd Blackledge connected with Gregg Garrity, Penn State will get to take on Georgia.
Thirty-three years after that duo came up with a national-title clinching touchdown, the Nittany Lions will face the Bulldogs for just the second time in their long history.
Penn State and Georgia both accepted invitations on Sunday to play in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville. Kickoff will be noon at the Jaguars’ EverBank Field with ESPN carrying the broadcast.
“We’re starting to show things as a program, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Lions coach James Franklin said Sunday night. “This is a great opportunity to get extra practice time with our players, play well and use that as a springboard into next season.”
It will be Penn State’s 46th bowl game appearance. The Lions are 1-2-1 in this game, formerly known as the Gator Bowl. Franklin and much of his staff went 1-2 against Georgia in their three years together at Vanderbilt.
OC search: Both teams finished the regular season in a period of transition. Penn State fired offensive coordinator John Donovan on the same day that Georgia ousted long-time head coach Mark Richt despite a 9-3 record in 2015.
Franklin said he hopes to hire his new coordinator in next “week-and-a-half or two weeks,” but he’d take more time, if needed, to find the right fit.
Regardless of the timeframe, quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne will handle the play-calling against Georgia. Rahne won’t be a candidate for the job full-time though, as Franklin said he is looking to go “outside the program” for the hire.
“If we can get somebody in place (soon) to evaluate our players and be around our staff, then right after the bowl game they’re able to jump right in from day one in terms of moving forward with the whole program on offense,” Franklin said.
“The other thing is, that would be helpful for our players, not to have that in the back of your mind or be concerned or worried about it. They can set up meetings with that (new) guy and sit down with him as well. It allows them to be focused on the game and not be concerned about the future.”
Coaching situation at Georgia: On the other sideline, Richt had originally planned on coaching the Bulldogs in the postseason. But that won’t happen after he ultimately took the open job at Miami, where former Penn State captain Al Golden was fired back in October.
Early Sunday afternoon, Georgia officially announced the hire of Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to replace Richt. But Smart will likely finish out the season with the Crimson Tide, who will face Michigan State in the national semifinals on Dec. 31.
In the meantime, Georgia has appointed wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon as interim coach for the bowl game. Astonishingly, McClendon will be the fourth interim or acting head coach Penn State has faced this season, joining Norries Wilson (Rutgers), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Bill Cubit (Illinois).
Though McClendon and much of the staff may not be retained by Smart, McClendon said the current coaches are “still planning on being here” through the bowl game.
“You have to keep hold of the task at hand,” McClendon said. “When (Smart) does come in and everything else, my focus can’t be on that. I owe it to the kids to make sure my focus is right, just like any other game this season.”
Georgia and LSU were the SEC teams under consideration by the TaxSlayer. Despite the coaching shake-up, the Bulldogs are a fixture in Jacksonville, where they play Florida every year in their annual rivalry game.
Similar profiles: The Dawgs — who lost to Florida this year, as well as Alabama and Tennessee — have a very similar profile to Penn State with the defense typically outshining an inconsistent offense.
Georgia’s defense ranks in the top 10 nationally in both points and yards allowed. The offense, however, ranks below 75th in scoring and total yards. Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert won the starting quarterback job but was briefly benched after struggling in October.
Not helping matters was a season-ending knee injury to standout running back Nick Chubb. Sony Michel was a strong second option, turning in a 1,000-yard season on the ground in his place.
On defense, the Bulldogs are led by outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, a potential first-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft.
Penn State was a Gator Bowl regular in the 60s, playing in back-to-back games there in 1960 and 1961 under Rip Engle. The Lions beat Georgia Tech but lost to Florida the following year.
It was also the site of Joe Paterno’s first bowl game as head coach, an infamous 17-17 tie against Florida State in 1967 that saw the ‘Noles rally from a 17-0 halftime deficit that included the Lions getting stuffed on fourth-and-1 from their own 15.
But since then, Penn State has only appeared once in one of the nation’s oldest bowl games — a 20-9 loss to Notre Dame in the 1976 contest. Famed Pittston Area grad Jimmy Cefalo earned MVP honors for Penn State.