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Fiesta Bowl Preview: No. 9 Penn State vs. No. 11 Washington

Penn State takes on Washington in its first Fiesta Bowl appearance in two decades.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State looks to finish the 2017 season on a high note by winning its 11th game against an unfamiliar PAC 12 foe.

(#9) Penn State (10-2) vs. (#11) Washington (10-2)

Kickoff: 4 p.m.., University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ

The Betting Line: Penn State -2

TV: ESPN- Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Greg McElroy (analyst), Tom Luginbell (sideline)

Weather: Sunny and dry, with temps in the mid-70s.


James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 35-17, 4th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 59-32, 7th Year

VS. WASHINGTON: First Meeting

Chris Peterson:

WASHINGTON RECORD: 37-16, 4th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 129-28, 12th Year

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting



The Huskies have the best backfield that Penn State has faced all season, and will be a huge challenge for the Nittany Lions defense, who have dominated at times but were also torn apart by the more proficient offenses they faced. Running back Myles Gaskin is easily one of the nations’ most underrated players. He finished with 1,282 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground, ending the season on a hot streak by rushing for at least 120 yards in four of the final five games of the season. He has the speed to break a long gain if given a hole, but can also be tough to bring down on first contact despite his size. He can also do damage out of the backfield, contributing 228 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the season.

Quarterback Jake Browning has the accuracy to be able to pick apart Penn State’s defense, especially if they have difficulty garnering pressure. While he didn’t put up the type of Heisman-caliber numbers many were expecting, he still had an outstanding season where he completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,544 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Browning is similar to Trace McSorley where he can use his feet to move around the pocket to buy time to find the open receiver. He also does a great job of spreading the ball around, completing at least 10 passes to 10 different receivers. Browning is able to scramble for yardage, but is not a primary running threat.

While the Huskies don’t overly rely on any receivers, Dante Pettis is their biggest threat. He is the team’s leading receiver with 62 receptions for 721 yards and seven touchdowns. Pettis is recovering from an ankle injury but has returned to practice and is expected to play on Saturday. Freshman tight end Hunter Bryan also plays a large part in the passing game, with 22 catches for 331 yards and a touchdown. However, at 6-2, he is not a major red zone threat. Like Pettis, he is also questionable but seems likely to play after returning to practice after suffering a leg injury. Will Dissly is another major contributor at tight end, and can be a tough match-up cover at 6-4 and 267 lbs. Sophomore receiver Aaron Fuller is underutilized, but can make a big play when needed.

The Huskies are solid upfront, regularly opening up lanes for Gaskin and protecting Browner, giving up just 1.33 sacks per game.


When you look at the numbers, Washington has one of the nation’s best defenses. They rank fifth in total defense by giving up 277.4 yards per game, and sixth in scoring defense by allowing a measly 14.5 points per contest. They rank 21st in passing defense and 23rd in pass efficiency defense. However, the stat that is most concerning for Penn State is the Huskies have the best run defense in all the land, giving up just 92.3 yards on the ground per game.

However, the last stat may be somewhat deceiving as Washington did not face many quality run games throughout the season. When they faced a running back of Barkley’s caliber in Stanford’s Bryce Love, they did not fare well at all. Love tore through the Huskies defense for 166 yards on 30 carries, despite being slowed down by a bum ankle. On the other hand, some incredibly poor run defenses were able to shut down Barkley throughout the season by sending an unblocked man directly for him on running plays. If the Huskies go this route, they will be setting up a big day for Trace McSorley through the air and on the ground. McSorley also has plenty of other weapons should the Huskies focus on stopping Barkley, as wide receivers Juwan Johnson, DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins and tight end Mike Gesicki are all capable of testing Washington’s secondary.

Another intriguing weapon could be backup quarterback Tommy Stevens in his new ‘Lion’ role, as listed on the most recent depth chart. His role will likely be the same as what we’ve seen in the past, where Stevens lines up in the backfield, along with McSorley and Barkley, as a threat to pass, run or exit the backfield as a receiver. Either way, it signals a commitment to giving Stevens a larger and more regular role with the offense moving forward.

Penn State will benefit from the return of their best offensive lineman, right tackle Ryan Bates. Although Chasz Wright is listed as the starter on the current depth chart, Bates may get the nod if he’s close to 100 percent by Saturday.

Whoever starts will have their hands full against a talented Huskies front seven. Tevis Bartlett is a terror at outside linebacker, picking up 12 TFLs and four sacks on the season. Massive defensive tackle Vita Vea is expected to be one of the top picks in the NFL draft, and moves very well for someone who weighs nearly 350 lbs. He can clog up the middle, but also contributed 3.5 sacks and 5.5 negative hits. His counterpart, Shane Bowman, is also highly skilled and gives the Huskies one of the nation’s top defensive tackle duos.

One final note- this is likely to be Saquon Barkley’s last game as a Nittany Lion. He is always at his best after time off and will be motivated to go out with a bang. Savor every second Barkley is on the field.


Neither team has a very reliable kicking game, so look for both to gamble on fourth down instead of attempting a long field goal. Washington’s Tristan Vizacino was 12 of 19 on the season, and also missed three extra points. He did hit a career-long 44 yard attempt in the final week of the regular season in the Apple Cup. Penn State’s Tyler Davis was nine of 16, but hit all three attempts during the second half of the season.

Both teams have outstanding punters who can flip the field. Washington’s Joel Whitford is averaging 41.4 yards per punt with at least one punt of 50-plus yards in six games this season. Penn State’s Blake Gillkin is averaging 43.2 yards per punt with a long of 57.

This will also be a match-up featuring electrifying return men. Washington has the nation’s top punt returner in Dante Pettis, who averages 20.4 yards per return with four (yes, FOUR) touchdowns. Running back Salvon Ahmed is the primary kick returner for the Huskies, averaging an impressive 28.5 yards per return. Saquon Barkley and DeAndre Thompkins gave Penn State such an advantage in the return game that opponents often conceded field position to avoid kicking to either of them. Barkley scored touchdowns on kick returns, both to open the game against Indiana and Ohio State.


Penn State-38, Washington-34

This is a tough one to predict, especially when you consider how even these teams are across the board. To add to that, Washington’s strengths line up well against Penn State’s weaknesses. They are strong in trenches, and have a quarterback with the accuracy and decision-making that can really hurt Penn State’s defense.

But Penn State is a darn good football team as well, coming up just a couple plays (and probably inopportune injuries) from going undefeated. The Nittany Lions will come back healthy and determined to send out the senior class (and likely one otherworldly talented junior) out with a win. It won’t be easy, and it will cause some new gray hairs for members of the fanbase, but I like Penn State to come out on top in what could be the most entertaining bowl game of the year yet again.

Washington does a nice job bottling up Barkley early, but he breaks loose for two long runs in the second half to finish with 130 yards rushing to go along with 50 receiving. Trace McSorley tosses for just under 300 yards and three touchdown strikes, including two to Mike Gesicki. Tommy Stevens also finds his way to the end zone.

On defense, senior linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith have 13 and 11-tackle days, respectively, while Grant Haley comes down with a crucial interception in the end zone to halt a Huskies scoring drive.