DALLAS — Penn State's Tom Bradley looked sharp in his dark suit and light blue tie, dressed as if he was about to go on a job interview.
Monday's TicketCity Bowl against No. 20 Houston might very well be the last time the longtime defensive coordinator paces the Nittany Lions' sideline.
"The first thing I need to do is apologize for coach Bradley being overdressed for this press conference," said Cougars coach Tony Levine, dressed in red sweats after arriving at the Cotton Bowl stadium fresh from practice.
"I told you what to wear," the outgoing Bradley retorted to chuckles. "Didn't you get the memo?"
What Bradley hasn't been reading is the seemingly endless string of reports and rumors swirling around Penn State and its search for a replacement for Joe Paterno, who was fired Nov. 9 in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges brought against ex-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Bradley would like to stay on permanently. He has interviewed once for the job but said Sunday he had "never heard anything about a second interview. That's why I read it in the paper and get that from you guys."
Acting Athletic Director David Joyner said Thursday in Dallas that the school wasn't done with interviews, but he hoped to have a new coach in place with enough time to recruit before high school seniors can announce their college choices on February 1.
"Every day there are different rumors that swirl around," Bradley said. "One thing I'll do is that I'm going to work until the last day that I'm told my services are no longer needed."
USA Today and ESPN reported Sunday that New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is the top candidate for the Nittany Lions job. At a Penn State pep rally Sunday outside the Cotton Bowl, Joyner cut off a reporter's question about the reports and said, "No, don't believe anything you read in the newspapers. I was taught that long time ago."
He answered "No," when asked if anyone could be classified as a leading candidate.
Bradley will be working at the very least through Monday in a game that has been mostly overshadowed by the drama surrounding Penn State (9-3).
No Joe Paterno for a Penn State bowl game for the first time since the 1962 Gator Bowl, a 17-7 loss to Florida.
No Matt McGloin as starting quarterback. Bradley said backup Rob Bolden will get his first start in two months with McGloin not medically cleared after suffering a concussion and seizure Dec. 17 following a locker room scuffle with receiver Curtis Drake.
Lost among the off-field story lines is the intriguing matchup of Penn State's stingy defense and Houston's high-octane offense led by star quarterback Case Keenum.
"I think it's a matchup of two very distinct and different styles really across the board," Levine said. "Our offense against their defense, their offense against our defense. They're very physical in their style of play and in their stature ... We have not played a team like Penn State all season."
Likewise, Penn State hasn't faced a quarterback as accomplished as Keenum, the 6-foot-2 senior who holds NCAA career records for passing yardage (18,685), total offense (19,572) and touchdown passes (152).
"We've got a lot of fast guys, and then there's me," Keenum said Friday. "So I'm going to try to get it out my hands and into their hands as quickly as possible."
The Cougars (12-1) like to push the pace on offense, even into the fourth quarter. Penn State's defense, which has held opponents to a Big Ten-best 15.7 points a game, will need its front four to generate enough pass rush on Keenum so its veteran secondary and solid linebackers can concentrate on defending receivers.
Fortunately for Bradley, he's got All-American defensive tackle Devon Still (11½ tackles for loss) leading the way up front. Bradley said the senior is ready to go Monday after sitting the last few practices with turf toe.
"This is the best defense we've faced all year, and probably that I've ever faced," Keenum said. "This is Big Ten football at its finest. We're going to have to be really physical."
This will also be the first bowl game of 2012 after the college football postseason schedule took a New Year's Day break. About 45,000-50,000 fans are expected for the contest at the historic Cotton Bowl, which seats about 92,000.
The TicketCity Bowl has the seventh selection of bowl games with Big Ten alliances, after BCS games, though Penn State players have vowed they're over being jilted by bowls higher in the selection order amid the controversy surrounding the charges against Sandusky. He is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty last month.
Houston also wants to end the season on a positive note after losing out on a potential BCS berth following a 49-28 loss to Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA title game a month ago.
"A lot of people remember us for our last game," linebacker Philip Steward said. "We want to make sure people remember us for this game and not our last game."