Both Penn State and Washington came into the 2017 season with enough talent to conquer their respective conferences, but their rivals had other plans. After Penn State’s pass defense came up short against Ohio State and Michigan State, the Lions fell short of the Playoff. Similarly, the Huskies lost a chance to play in their conference title game when they were defeated by Arizona State and Stanford.
It’s easy for fans of both programs to look back and wonder what could have been, but it’s more pleasant to look ahead to what should be an exciting Fiesta Bowl. Even the most elite programs have a hard time qualifying for New Year’s Six bowl games in consecutive years, so Penn State and Washington have a reason to be glad despite the missed opportunities.
The Fiesta Bowl means one more chance for the Nittany Lions to gain a signature win in 2017. We’ve all heard by now about how James Franklin hasn’t ever beaten a ranked team on the road, and while he’ll have to wait until 2018 to exorcise that demon, beating an excellent Washington team in Pac-12 country would come pretty darn close.
The Huskies have had their issues this year, but they’re coming off of their biggest win of the season — an emphatic, 41-14 smashing of Washington State in the Apple Cup. For more on what makes Washington such a balanced team, we got a hold of John Sayler from SB Nation’s Washington blog, UW Dawg Pound. Thanks to John for taking the time to answer our questions.
Black Shoe Diaries: Jake Browning improved his completion percentage by six percent over last year, but he only threw 18 touchdown passes in 2017 compared to 43 in 2016. Was this all because the quarterback lost his top target in John Ross, or are other factors involved?
UW Dawg Pound: Ross was 100 percent healthy last season for probably the only time in his college or pro career, but damn that dude was amazing. Browning will take everything that a defense gives him, and when his guys are winning the one-on-one matchups, he is going to look like a surgeon out there. When they are not, he looks pretty ordinary. Ross beat everyone while taking the attention of the defense away from Dante Pettis, who is pretty much an all-world No. 2 receiver in a Chris Petersen offense. With Ross gone, Pettis is a pretty good No. 1, but it's a downgrade.
So, you figure no big deal, Ross is gone; everyone loses good players each year. Dante becomes the man, and someone steps into his role. Well, no one ever did, because injuries took down everyone who tried. Chico McClatcher — who had a nice 2016 season and was settled into the No. 2 role — broke his ankle in the Pac-12 opener. No. 3 receiver Andre Baccellia was injured during the non-conference season and missed most of the year before returning for the last few games. Quinten Pounds stepped up when McClatcher went down and made some nice contributions, but he then tore his ACL. Freshman tight end Hunter Bryant eventually was called upon and looked to be the passing game's savior when he and Browning started clicking in Week 5. But in Week 8, Bryant suffered a knee injury and he never made it back all season.
BSD: Dante Pettis has 40 more receptions than any other Washington pass-catcher, but he's only averaging 11.6 yards per catch. Should Washington be making more of an effort to target him down the field? Who will Browning's top target be if Pettis's ankle injury holds him out of the Fiesta Bowl?
UWDP: The offense doesn't take as many shots down the field as it did in 2016, and the depletion of the receiving corps detailed above probably has quite a bit to do with that. Pettis and Bryant would be the top two guys if they can play, but we don't know about either heading into the game. Among the healthy receivers for UW are Baccellia, sophomore Aaron Fuller, true freshman Ty Jones and junior vet Brayden Dickey. Fuller is the only projected contributor heading into the season (other than Pettis) who has remained healthy. He's a quality target with nice hands and a knack for getting open. When UW has been thin at wide receiver this season, it has used both running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman at the same time, plus tight ends Wil Dissly and Drew Sample. Basically, it's about getting the best players on the field.
BSD: Myles Gaskin has been a model of consistency with over 200 carries and 1,200 yards in each of his three seasons at Washington. Is Gaskin doing anything different this year to maintain a career-high 6.2 yards per carry average? Do Washington fans feel like he is underrated compared to a back like Saquon Barkley who has received more national attention?
UWDP: Gaskin just squirts around and racks up yardage. Like Barkley, he'll get caught in the backfield on plays and seem to be bottled up for a few series. He is one of those guys who gets in a groove with his offensive line and then just seems to be impossible to stop. At that point, watch out; a zone-blocked play where the cutback is available and it's a big play. Gaskin has been Gaskin this season. As you said, the dude is consistent.
National attention is not something Washington fans generally expect for their players. Gaskin is as popular a Husky as I can remember; he's just a workhorse and a likable, humble guy. I'm really looking forward to watching both of these running backs do their thing.
BSD: Defensive tackle Vita Vea is a big reason why Washington is the only Pac-12 team to average fewer than 100 rushing yards allowed per game. What makes the big man so disruptive? Are Washington fans confident that the rush defense will hold up against Barkley and the Lions?
UWDP: Vita Vea gets blocked by two large men on every play. On many of those plays, the two large men are outmatched and a third large man comes over to help out. What makes him so effective is that more than 25 percent of the offensive players are trying to handle him and that leaves only 75 of your offense to account for 91 of the UW defense. So really it's just a math question.
In seriousness, Vea is super-duper big and strong and fast and generally good at football. UW's other inside tackle, Greg Gaines, is also massive and an all-conference player. You really can't afford to double team him and Vea. Also, the linebackers are experienced and very good so you can't forget about them either.
Still, Barkely is going to get some running lanes. Just because Vea is pushing the O-Linemen back doesn't always mean that he is pushing them in the best possible direction. Barkley has great vision and quickness, and on some plays he will find running room and make plays.
BSD: Washington also allows the fewest yards per pass attempt in the Pac-12, and it showed in their defensive performance against Washington State in the Apple Cup. Which player is most important to slowing down a Penn State passing game that thrives on the big play?
UWDP: One person on the Husky defense that I think can make or break this game in terms of Trace McSorley and the PSU passing game is cornerback Austin Joyner. He is the guy that defenses attacked since he mostly played opposite whoever was healthy between Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller (both very, very good corners). Joyner is an athletic player and at only 5’10” will probably find himself having to provide at least initial coverage on Mike Gesicki on some plays and try to out-time or out-jump the monster tight end on some back-shoulder or jump-ball throws. UW would love to primarily rush three, "blitz" with a four-man rush, and play a combo of man and zone on the back end. Even if they are able to do this and get a good rush with three and four, they still have to keep track of Barkley, spy McSorley stepping up and taking off, and cover on the outside. Help will come from the three-man zone, but it wont always be soon enough to stop Gesicki from getting his paws on the ball first. Joyner needs to have his best game as a Husky.
BSD: According to FEI and the College Football Playoff rankings, Washington is a better team than both of the squads that it lost to this year. What happened against Arizona State and Stanford that led to a pair of disappointing defeats?
UWDP: When you play a road game within the conference against a decent team, it's just not that shocking when the forecasting is way off. UW didn't play well in either game, and both opponents put together their best games of the season. To get specific into x's and o's and why Washington lost, it's the stuff you would expect: Not winning the turnover battle or the third down conversion game. Missing blocks and tackles. A good game plan well-executed by your opponent. Bad Luck, bad play, bad decisions.
BSD: The Huskies come into the Fiesta Bowl as slight underdogs. How do you see the game going for Washington?
UWDP: This is a really tough one to call. I sort of feel like both teams could sputter on offense before getting it rolling. Eventually though, I think the offenses will exchange some splash plays and we'll see some entertaining football. Anybody's game really. I'll be a homer and take the Huskies, 31-30.
Thanks again to John for helping us gain a better understanding of Washington football. For more on the Huskies all year round, be sure to check out UW Dog Pound!