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Penn State and Washington both fell short of their goals this season, but which one will finish strong?

A year after being a playoff semifinal game, the Fiesta Bowl features two top-15 teams in Washington and Penn State. Both the Huskies and Nittany Lions finished 10-2 after being considered conference favorites. Penn State has a dynamic offense that is led by the nation’s most NFL-ready running back. Washington will counter with a strong defense anchored by a bruising front-seven. Both teams have redeeming qualities on both sides of the ball making for interesting matchups all game long.

The Fiesta Bowl will be played in Phoenix, Arizona on December 30th at 4:30 pm EST on ESPN.

Headlines Heading Into The Game

1. Both Squads Without Their Offensive Coordinator- Bowl season is an interesting time of the year. For one, fans get to see two teams that are seldom pitted against each other to battle it out. The other intrigue comes in the coaching carousel. Head coaches and coordinators get picked up by other schools during bowl time which brings up the question if that coach will honor their duties to their current position. Both Washington and Penn State will be without their offensive coordinators for the bowl game.

Penn State’s Joe Moorhead will start early on his duties as Mississippi State’s new head coach. Under Moorhead, the Nittany Lions averaged 453.2 yards per game and 41.6 points per game, which was sixth most in the country. Washington will be without Jonathan Smith who will be heading to Oregon State. The Huskies gained just 411.6 yards per game and were 16th in the country by averaging 36.9 points per game.

2. Huskies and Nittany Lions Come Up Short- Both Penn State and Washington were seen as major preseason contenders to win their conferences. Unfortunately, both came up just short after losing key games late in the season. Despite a 7-0 start, Penn State dropped back-to-back games against Ohio State and Michigan State. To make matters worse, the Nittany Lions only lost those games by a combined four points. Looking back on the season this team will always be thinking of what could have been. 

Washington also had two tough losses, both on the road. Arizona State took down the Huskies first in a 13-7 contest that saw the first and only Washington score come with 5:32 left in the game. A few weeks later Stanford took down the Huskies behind Bryce Love’s three scores. They won the last two games but the damage was done and they finished third in the Pac 12.  

3. Chris Petersen No Stranger To Fiesta Bowl- Washington head coach Chris Petersen has had success everywhere he has been the main play caller. His first gig was at Boise State where he led the Broncos to a 92-12 record over eight seasons. In his first four seasons in Seattle, Petersen is 36-16, winning double-digit games in back-to-back seasons.

Petersen is taking the Huskies to their first Fiesta Bowl but he’s very familiar with the game. At Boise State, Petersen coached in two Fiesta Bowls, once in 2007 against Oklahoma and in 2010 against TCU. The Broncos went 2-0 in those game and Petersen will look to bring that magic to his new team. 

Key Stats

92.3- The talk around Happy Valley is Saquon Barkley and the running game. They only average 167.4 on the ground but Barkley is the most NFL-ready runner in the country. He picked up 1,134 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns on the season. However, Barkley may find difficulty in getting going on the ground. Washington’s defense has only allowed 92.3 rushing yards per game, which is the lowest in the country. Now Barkley is an all-around threat but if the Huskies can shut down the running game, then they can focus all their attention on the Penn State passing attack.

38- Penn State’s defense doesn’t get enough credit. They only give up 329.4 yards per game, which puts them in the top-20 and let up 15.5 points per game, good enough for seventh. The Nittany Lions are also one of the best teams at getting to the quarterback. As a team, they’ve sacked opposing QBs 38 times, which is ninth-most in the country. Six players have picked up at least three sacks and 21 defensive players have recorded at least half a sack. Washington quarterback Jake Browning could be in for a long day of getting pressured by this fearsome Nittany Lion defense.

Washington coach Chris Petersen scouts #PennState’s defense.

— Mark Wogenrich (@MarkWogenrich) December 29, 2017

+14 and +11- Both teams are in elite status when it comes to taking care of the football. Penn State is tied for fifth with a +14 turnover margin, and Washington isn’t far behind, tied at 12th at +11. Neither one of these teams are conservative on offense but they just take care of the football so well. Both have only turned the ball over 10 times, and many came in just a few games for the two. Penn State had five combined against Iowa and Michigan State, while Washington had two against both Fresno State and UCLA. Neither team gives the ball away, so if there are any turnovers, the offenses need to take advantage of it right away.

Key Players

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State- Barkley is the big man on campus, but quarterback Trace McSorley is a very special player in his own right. The senior from Ashburn, Virginia threw for 3,228 yards, 26 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. McSorley has used his legs to his advantage this season. He was second on the team in carries (132), yards (431), and touchdowns (11). Despite playing second fiddle to Barkley, McSorley is more than capable of taking control of a game and willing his team to win even when the running game isn’t going well.

Trace McSorley is fuel powering Penn State (➡️ @ATT)

— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 28, 2017

Vita Vea, DL, Washington- Interior defensive linemen rarely get any attention from the media but can be such a crucial part of a team’s defense. Washington’s rush defense is elite and junior defensive tackle Vita Vea is the main cog. At 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, Vea is a hulking human being. On the season he’s managed 36 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and four pass deflections. Defensive tackles don’t show off on the stat sheet but make no mistake just how important Vea is. The Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year is seen as a mid-to-late first-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL draft as well. 

Why Penn State Will Win 

If Penn State can get their offense rolling early, there aren’t many teams in the country that can slow them down. Barkley is a tremendous all-around running back picking up 2,154 total yards and 21 touchdowns. He can beat a team in every aspect of the game and the Nittany Lions rely on him to set the pace. But McSorley can’t be overlooked as a playmaker and is more than capable of being the go-to guy. 

Saquon Barkley has not seen a defense like Washington’s and Washington has not seen a back like Barkley. One of the most intriguing match ups of bowl season:

— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) December 29, 2017

On defense, the pass rush has to get to Browning. The Washington offensive line is a solid unit, and if you give Browning time than he will pick you apart. Lucky for the line, the secondary is a solid group as well. They rank 12th giving up only six yards per opponent attempt. Penn State’s offense is explosive and their defense is more than capable of making life difficult for opponents as well.

Why Washington Will Win 

Washington as a whole might not get the attention they deserve. Despite only picking up 4,940 total yards, the Huskies have scored 36.9 points per game. Myles Gaskin is used just like Barkley is with Penn State. Gaskin has picked up 1,510 total yards and 22 touchdowns. Quarterback Browning is having a down year from 2016 but is an effective thrower nonetheless. He’s completed 68.8% of his passes to go along with his 18 touchdowns. 

Washington Myles Gaskin is a threat with the ball in his hands - either on runs, or catching passes out of the backfield.

PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 29, 2017

The Huskies have the advantage on the defensive side. Already mentioned is their elite rush defense but their pass defense is just as good. They only give up 185.1 passing yards and have picked up 13 interceptions. They will focus on Barkley and keep him in check. Washington wants to keep the score low and allow their defense to lead the charge.

Special teams could also play a part in this one. Dante Pettis is the NCAA record-holder with nine career punt returns for touchdowns, including four this season. Pettis could make a difference and give the Washington offense a short field at any time. 


This has the potential to be one of the best bowl games of the season. When trying to find a winner in this matchup it might be best to break down each unit. Penn State has the advantage on offense but not by much. Both teams have a dynamic running back that can be used in multiple ways, and quarterbacks that can take over when needed.

Washington has the clear advantage on defense and is the reason I’m going with the Huskies in a closely-tested Fiesta Bowl.

Washington Upsets Penn State 31-27

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

When was the first year of the Fiesta Bowl?
Created 12/19/17
  1. 1971
  2. 1989
  3. 2003
  4. 2000

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