Penn State and Washington make such an intriguing Fiesta Bowl matchup because both teams could have been in the College Football Playoff if their seasons had just broken a little bit differently. While the Lions blew back-to-back fourth quarter leads in their two biggest road games of the season at Ohio State and Michigan State, the Huskies saw their usually potent offense fall flat in a shocking loss at Arizona State. If Chris Petersen’s team had just managed a second touchdown in Tempe, it might have made the Playoff despite a loss to Stanford in which a stout Washington rush defense was run over by Heisman finalist Bryce Love.
What: PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Who: Washington Huskies (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten)
When: December 30, 4:00 p.m. EST, ESPN
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ
Line: PSU -1.5, O/U 55
When Penn State has the ball
Can Saquon Barkley run on the Huskies like Love did? If he’s able to, it will probably mean a Penn State victory. The Lions are 4-0 this year when Barkley runs for at least 100 yards, and they’ve scored over 40 points in three of those games. However, Penn State’s offensive line can’t be compared to Stanford’s, and Washington’s rush defense could be considered the best in the country with just 92 yards allowed per game.
On the other hand, the Huskies only played against two of the top five rushing offenses in the Pac-12 this year. Besides Stanford, Washington faced off against Oregon and allowed Ducks tailback Royce Freeman to rush for 122 yards on 24 carries. That’s not a great performance considering that Oregon had no functional passing game without the services of starting quarterback Justin Herbert. Maybe Washington’s rush defense isn’t as good as it appears on paper, but if Penn State’s offensive line can’t contain monster defensive tackle Vita Vea, we could see Barkley stuck in the backfield like he has been against the better fronts that he’s faced in 2017.
It’s not an issue that the Lions haven’t overcome before. Trace McSorley has become accustomed to putting the offense on his back when the running game is stuck in the mud. Plus, he could be playing his best football of the season, completing at least two-thirds of his passes with multiple touchdowns in each of his last three games. Juwan Johnson has become his new favorite target with 16 catches for 246 yards over that stretch. Still, the most dangerous part of Penn State’s passing offense might be its balance. Four receivers, including tight end Mike Gesicki and tailback Barkley, have between 45 and 55 receptions, so McSorley should be free to throw to whichever side of the field that standout safety Taylor Rapp isn’t patrolling.
When Washington has the ball
Washington’s offense as a whole is pretty balanced thanks to the incredible work of Myles Gaskin on the ground, but in the passing game, junior quarterback Jake Browning has only one main man to throw to. With 62 receptions this year, Dante Pettis has 40 more catches than any other Washington receiver. The lack of a great second option wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Pettis was better at stretching the field, but the senior is averaging just 11.6 yards per catch after his 15.5 figure from last year. That’s a big drop-off that limits the explosiveness of Washington’s offense, even though Browning is completing a career-high 69 percent of his passes. However, help could be on the way. Before he went down with a leg injury in late October, freshman tight end Hunter Bryant had 331 yards on 22 receptions, and it’s possible he’ll return to action in Arizona on Saturday.
How badly the Huskies need Bryant will depend on the effectiveness of Gaskin. He’s been very consistent this year with over 100 rushing yards in six out of nine Pac-12 games, but Penn State’s run defense has been just as strong. The unit, led by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen, might have allowed 201 rushing yards to Ohio State, but it also succeeded in slowing down star tailbacks like Justin Jackson, Akrum Wadley, and Karan Higdon.
Whether or not Washington can run the ball will be key in the Fiesta Bowl. If Gaskin has a big day, it will open up Browning to carve up a Penn State secondary that has struggled against the top quarterbacks that it has faced. If Gaskin is contained, the Lions can commit more players to coverage and force Browning to dink and dunk his way down the field. If that’s the case, I don’t feel like Washington will be able to keep up with the big plays that Penn State can make in the passing game.
Penn State 34, Washington 27