Previewing Penn State Post Season: Fiesta Bowl Against Washington

Every Penn State fan remembers exactly where they watched the instant classic that was the 2016 Rose Bowl, when the Nittany Lions and USC Trojans did battle for 60 minutes of offensive fireworks. I was in a friend’s basement dreading a two hour ride back to the town I was working in as soon as the game ended in order to be at work at 4 a.m. the next day.

Whether this year’s bowl game plays out in a similar fashion or not, we’re going to be in for another good one. This year’s rendition of Penn State versus the Pac 12 features a matchup against a team that played in the College Football Playoff a season ago, the Washington Huskies.

The Huskies won 10 games this season, losing to Arizona State somewhat inexplicably, 13-7, and dropping a tight contest on the road to Stanford, 30-22. A win in either of these games would have given the Huskies a chance to play for the Pac 12 title against USC. Instead, it was those Stanford Cardinal that represented the North Division. Since the final week of the regular season, Stanford has dropped its two biggest games, falling to USC in the Pac 12 championship game before surrendering a lead to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, falling 39-37.

The Nittany Lions will trade Southern California and the Rose Bowl for Glendale, Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl. While the weather here in the Delaware Valley is looking a White Christmas come a week too late, the temperature at kickoff for the Fiesta Bowl will be a balmy 75 degrees. Even if it was unseasonably cool for kickoff, the retractable roof at the University of Phoenix Stadium will make for comfortable conditions for the entirety of the game.

Washington is headed by Chris Petersen, a relatively young head coach who has climbed the ladder of success quickly in the college ranks. After years of winning traditions at Boise State, including coaching the winningest FBS program in the last 12 years, Petersen took the reigns of Washington in 2014 after then-head coach Steve Sarkisian bounced from the program to join rival USC. Since then, Sarkisian has moved on from the Trojans to join the NFL coaching ranks and is now with the Atlanta Falcons. In his coaching career, Petersen is 101 games over .500, posting a 129-28 record in 11 seasons. Ironically enough, Petersen’s one flaw has seemingly come in bowl play, where he is just 6-4 at the helms of Boise State and Washington. A .600 winning percentage in bowl play is still successful, but when you win 82 percent of your regular season games, that dip is almost viewed as a chink in the armor.

When you think bowl games of the 2000’s, I bet there are three or four games that come to mind. Assuredly, one of those games that swirl through your mind is another Fiesta Bowl, one from ten seasons ago, in which Petersen’s Broncos ran a hook and ladder with precious time left on the clock to tie the football game against the heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners before winning the game in overtime. It was an unbelievable finish to a good football game that propelled Boise State and Petersen into every home in America.

Petersen’s Washington offense scores at a fairly torrid pace, putting up nearly 35 points per game. That total is actually a down tick from a season ago, in which the Huskies dropped an average of 42 per game, good for seventh in the country. In 2017, the offense ranked 19th in scoring. Perhaps for one final time, the Huskies will be led by signal caller, junior Jake Browning. While Browning hasn’t yet made his decision on the NFL Draft next April, it is likely that he foregoes his final season of eligibility to declare for the draft. Browning took a serious downturn in 2017 after a 43 touchdown 3400 yard performance in 2016, leading his Huskies to a playoff appearance. This year, Browning completed an additional six percent of his passes, raising his completion percentage from 62 percent 68 percent. He did, however, throw nearly 90 fewer passes in 2017. Browning finished the season with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but he hasn’t thrown a pick since November 4, spanning nearly three and a half games. Browning is a big bodied, accurate quarterback who can pick you apart if you give him time in the pocket. The Penn State front four will need to get pressure on the quarterback, making him uncomfortable and forcing him to climb the pocket more quickly than he wants.

The reason as to why Washington threw the ball 90 fewer times in 2017 is because they ran the ball 447 times this year. Quite possibly joining Browning in declaring for the draft after this game is workhorse running back Myles Gaskin. The three year starter has run for at least 1282 yards in each of his last three seasons, scoring 43 times n the process, including a career high 19 touchdowns this year. His yards per carry average has climbed in successive seasons, rising from 5.7 in 2015 to 6.2 this year. Ironically enough, Gaskin ran the ball just 24 times over the first three games, rushing for 153 yards in that span. That mean that the junior carried the ball 184 times for 1129 yards in the final nine games of the season.

a major factor in Browning’s slipping numbers is the loss of stud receiver John Ross from a season ago. Ross was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round this past April. Rose caught 81 passes for 1150 yards and 17 touchdowns. Replacing that has not come easy for the Huskies. Stepping up as the number one guy this season has been Dante Pettis, catching nine more passes in 2017 than in 2016. Those 62 receptions this season went for a team high 721 yards and seven touchdowns. After Pettis though, the passing game is a crapshoot. No receiver has more than 22 receptions, 331 yards or three touchdowns. Freshman tight end Hunter Bryant is bound for stardom, in my opinion, but he’s not quite there yet. Give him two seasons, and you’ll hear the experts calling his name as a top tight end going into the 2020 NFL Draft.

Despite the offensive production in 2017, the bread and butter for the Huskies is their vaunted defense. Washington ranks fifth in points allowed per game at 14.5 per game. Nine times this year, the Huskies allowed 16 or less, five of which they gave up ten or fewer. The defense gave up just 19 touchdowns in 12 games this year. What worries me the most in this one is the Washington defensive line. Every year, it seems that Washington has a next man up mentality when it comes to the true nose tackle they trot out. After Danny Shelton put the Huskie nose tackle position on the map, 6’5″, 340 pound monster Vita Vea stepped in and has been a force in the last few seasons. This year, Vea has 38 tackles, but his presence transcends the stats sheet. He forces opposing offenses to almost completely abandon the run between the tackles. That may not be the worst thing in the world for Penn State, as Saquon Barkley is the most dangerous when he’s getting outside the tackle box, but Vea, by himself, could cause problems for Trace McSorley’s timing in this one.The Huskies, as a whole, are first in the nation at stopping the run, giving up just 92 yards per game on the ground. They are one of five units that gave up less than 100 yards rushing per game this season.

We were under the assumption that the Huskies pass defense would take a step back in 2017 after losing it’s top two secondary assets in Sidney Jones and Budda Baker to the NFL. The dropoff hasn’t been nearly as substantial as we had thought, as the Huskies still rank 20th in the country in passing yards allowed per game, giving up just 185 per game. That total is nearly 25 yards less per game than what the 42nd ranked Nittany Lions allow through the air.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know if this one will live up to the hype of the 2016 Rose Bowl, but it is still a good matchup in its own right. Both teams come off seasons of high expectations being doused by untimely conference losses, but the fire power on both sides of the ball on both sides of the field can’t be ignored. While Saquon Barkley will be the best player on the field for either team, I think the Washington defense will be too much for the battered Penn State offensive line. I’ve only been wrong once this season in my predictions thus far, going 11-1, losing just the Michigan State game, and I’m sorry to do this to you Penn State faithful, but I’m sticking with my original pick, and taking the Huskies. Penn State loses its second straight bowl game to a Pac 12 foe, and extends its bowl losing streak to three straight.

Final Prediction: Washington 24-Penn State 23

 

Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

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