For Penn State's Micah Parsons, Heisman hype can begin after stellar Cotton Bowl effort

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates with his team following the 53-39 win over Memphis in an NCAA Cotton Bowl college football game, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons wasn’t afraid to say it.

Heisman Trophy 2020.

“The door is definitely open,” he said Saturday at AT&T Stadium.

Parsons delivered one of the great games in Penn State linebacker history, a 14-tackle, two-sack, two-forced-fumble performance at the Cotton Bowl that opened eyes to his talent across the country.

He was the defining defensive presence (and best player) in a decidedly nondefensive game, won by Penn State 53-39 in the highest-scoring Cotton Bowl in history. Just as Parsons predicted since the team arrived in Dallas last Saturday.

All week long, Parsons told Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry that he would win the game’s defensive MVP award. After hijacking a Memphis reverse for one of his three tackles for loss, Parsons told himself, “Oh yeah, it’s time.”

Parsons hounded his coaches ceaselessly on the sideline (“He beat me up all day to blitz his a--,” Pry said) and made the calls count. Parsons made the game’s defining play on one of those blitzes, forcing Memphis quarterback Brady White into a frantic attempted flip that Garrett Taylor intercepted for a tide-shifting interception. Taylor returned it 15 yards for a touchdown, giving Penn State a 45-36 lead.

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 28: Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates after a sack during the Cotton Bowl Classic college football game against the Memphis Tigers on December 28, 2019 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Looking for interception: Parsons lived in Memphis’ backfield, made plays across the midfield, popped balls loose and redefined Memphis possessions with key situational tackles. All he lacked was the interception. Which he won’t live down.

During their postgame interviews, quarterback Sean Clifford and running back Journey Brown chided Parsons with chants of “PBU," noting that he broke up two passes but didn’t get his exclamation point. Parsons dropped a second-half interception on which he likely would have scored.

That’s a point of order for next year: Making his first career interception.

“He’s getting so much better,” defensive end Shaka Toney said. "He’s just starting to learn football. The thing is, he doesn’t know much, and he’s still just playing off of a lot of instincts right now."

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 28: Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Micah Parsons (11) strips the ball from Memphis Tigers quarterback Brady White (3) that results in an interception touchdown return during the Cotton Bowl Classic between the Memphis Tigers and Penn State Nittany Lions on December 28, 2019 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Tantalizing future: That’s what makes Parsons’ future so tantalizing. He has played linebacker for just three seasons. Pry remembers when Parsons didn’t understand how to line up, scan the field or pursue plays.

But the coaches worked with him carefully, gradually, playing Parsons behind fifth-year senior Koa Farmer last season as Pry molded him into a linebacker.

This year, Parsons caught up to his athletic skills. He was Penn State’s leading tackler, sure, but made plays so soundly and effectively. He chased down runners with ease, didn’t miss tackles and didn’t make splash plays a priority over routine tackles.

“I always tell people that you can’t go out of your way to make the play,” Parsons said. “Just let the play come to you. That’s what I do.”

Pry deserves credit: Pry deserves credit for the way he shaped Parsons’ growth plan over the last two years. Even this week, as the linebacker announced his intention to win the defensive MVP award, Pry told him to roll over his pads and bend his knees because “you look like crap.”

“But on the biggest stage,” Pry said, “he’s going to perform his best.”

Enjoying the rain: Parsons thrived on this stage, playing at AT&T Stadium (home of the Dallas Cowboys) and in an NFL stadium for the first time in his career. He also had a more unusual secret to his success: the rain.

Morning broke in Dallas with a driving rainstorm, dulling the pregame pageantry at which the Cotton Bowl so thrives. But Parsons was thrilled. He got on a group text with his mother and father.

“Anytime it rains, I know I will have a good game,” he said. “When it starting raining this morning, I texted my mom and dad and said, ‘The storm is coming, this is great.’ And I end up having one of the best games of my life.”

Arrington comparisons: Not that he needed one, but Parsons will get a colossal launch into 2020 from this Cotton Bowl performance. It’s one that will make him a preseason defensive star the likes of which Penn State hasn’t seen perhaps since LaVar Arrington, whose No. 11 he shares.

Asked about living up to that number’s legacy in Penn State’s linebacker room, Parsons smiled.

“You don’t live by a standard,” he said, “you set a standard.”

A tough task: Defensive players often nudge their way into Heisman Trophy conversations but have a notoriously difficult time winning. Ohio State defensive end Chase Young was third in the voting this year. He was the first defensive player to finish in the top 4 since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was second in 2012.

Parsons said that “getting to the table” would be a blessing for himself and the program. Pry wasn’t ready to anoint Parsons with that expectation but did set an almost equally high bar.

"Right now, you’re going to have to show me somebody going into next football season who’s a better defensive player," Pry said.

Toney, the defensive end who has known Parsons since high school, wasn’t far behind in delivering a promise.

“We could see him be the No. 1 overall [NFL draft pick] next year, if we’re going to be real about it,” Toney said. “You can’t teach the things he’s doing. I don’t believe there’s another linebacker in the country, this year or next year, who’s going to be able to compete with Micah.”