By Michael Bennett
Tomorrow’s Fiesta Bowl is Penn State’s season-ending game, and it promises to be a fun time ion the desert:
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
No. 11 Washington (10-2) vs. No. 9 Penn State (10-2)
Dec. 30, 4 p.m. ET, Glendale, Ariz. (ESPN)
Penn State -2, O/U: 55
Washington was 6-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country when it went on the road and got upset by unranked Arizona State, 13-7, on Oct. 14. The UW offense struggled mightily in that game, but it got things turned around down the stretch, averaging 35.6 points over its final five games. However, the Huskies lost on Nov. 10 at Stanford in a loss that ultimately cost it the Pac-12 North title. After the loss to Stanford, UW rounded out the season with a dramatic come-from-behind win over Utah and a blowout of rival Washington State, 41-14. WSU was ranked No. 13 at the time and would have clinched the division with a win. Instead, the Huskies’ wrapped up an undefeated home record and gave the division to Stanford.
Penn State started the year 7-0 before losing back-to-back road games to Ohio State and Michigan State by a combined four points. PSU, then ranked No. 2, led No. 6 Ohio State 38-27 with under five minutes to go, but allowed the Buckeyes to score twice in the final 4:20 and lost in brutal fashion, 39-38. At Michigan State, PSU lost 27-24 on a field goal as time expired after enduring a 3.5-hour rain delay. If one of those games went the Nittany Lions’ way, they are likely playing in the College Football Playoff. Instead, PSU is on the outside looking in for a second year in a row.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dante Pettis, WR, Washington: Washington has a bevy of playmakers for Penn State to deal with, but the Nittany Lions have to worry about Dante Pettis on both offense and special teams. Pettis, a senior, is Jake Browning’s favorite target and leads the Huskies with 62 catches for 721 yards and seven touchdowns, but he’s even more dangerous in the return game. Pettis is the NCAA record-holder for punt return touchdowns. He has nine in his career, including four this season.
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Like Pettis, Barkley can hurt opponents with his skills on both offense and special teams. The junior rushed for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season while contributing 47 receptions for 594 yards and three touchdowns. His receiving yardage ranks second nationally among running backs. Barkley also ranks second in the country in all-purpose yards per game, putting up an average of 179.50 yards. A big part of that total comes from the return game, where Barkley averages 28.4 yards per kickoff return and has brought two back for touchdowns.
Barkley has been one of the most entertaining players in college football over the last three seasons. He is almost a guaranteed first-round pick in the NFL Draft if he chooses to declare. Watching him compete against Washington’s defense (namely stud DT Vita Vea), which allows just 277.4 yards per game, will be a treat — especially if it’s his final collegiate game. Beyond the allure of an incredible talent like Barkley, these are two all-around very good teams. Both rank in the top 20 in total defense — Washington at No. 5 and Penn State at No. 18 — and can put up points in bunches.
On offense, Penn State has put up big numbers utilizing a unique form of the spread offense developed by offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. But Moorhead accepted the head-coaching job at Mississippi State, leaving the keys to Ricky Rahne, who was quickly elevated from tight ends coach. Washington runs more of a pro-style system with Jake Browning at quarterback and Myles Gaskin (1,282 yards, 19 TDs) at running back. It will be fun watching the two units go back and forth.