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The Fiesta Bowl will be a battle of x-factors

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Washington and Penn State are about as evenly matched as any two teams in the #NY6.

Washington v Oregon State Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The tree has been taken down. The trimmings have been packed. The leftovers have been consumed. All that’s left are the lights outside and some warm holiday feelings.

And, if you haven’t heard, it's minus 5 in Minneapolis today. Those lights may have to continue to delight my neighbors for the next several days.

The Fiesta Bowl is now coming into focus with the game just days away. The Nittany Lions arrived in Phoenix two days before Christmas and have been getting used to their surroundings as a team. The Huskies joined them in the desert after a delayed flight landed them just in time for a Christmas dinner.

Bowl organizers were kind enough to cut up some footage of that Washington arrival into PHX. Here is a quick 80 second clip that you can access from our Facebook page.

So, now that we are all dialed back into the bowl season, it’s time to assess where UW stands relative to it’s competition.

We here at the UWDP have been thinking about this for a few weeks and have put up some decent analysis, at least by our standards.

For starters, we know that Penn State looks a lot like UW from a statistical profile perspective.

We also know that Paul Hornung Award winner Saquon Barkley is a pretty good running back.

In addition, our exhaustive film study revealed a few interesting nuggets. Most notably, we observed a few different examples of how the Nittany Lions like to take advantage of aggressive defenses using screens and shovels along with deceptive line of scrimmage play to get playmakers the ball in space. We also saw signs that the Penn State offensive line may be a point of weakness but that the defense is equally as stout against the run and the pass.

We will, of course, continue our week of previews with our typical Q&A, offensive and defensive previews and gameday primer pieces. But the truth of the matter is that we already know what’s what with the Fiesta Bowl.

We are playing about an evenly matched an opponent as we could possibly hope to find anywhere in the college football universe.

Whether we are talking about our multiple offense going against their balanced, cover 2 heavy defense or our record-breaking punt returner against their excellent punting unit or their big play offense against our big play prevention defense, this game looks like a chess match being played with just kings and pawns.

At least on paper.

Then how does one team eke out an advantage in a game like this?

Certainly, we’ll hear a lot of the cliche comments about “psychological advantage” and “who wants it more”. While player readiness is always important, I find these kinds of comments to be overly simplistic and somewhat lazy analysis.

To me, this game comes down to the basic factors that generally win football games: extra possessions, offensive efficiency and explosive plays. If either team had a huge advantage over the other in any of these categories, we’d have a clear favorite. As it is, Vegas currently has UW as a 3 point underdog with a moneyline of +110. The slight advantage to Penn State is simply explained by Penn State’s higher ranking and Vegas’s interest in generating action on both sides of the line.

The game will certainly come down to a little bit of momentum, a little bit of luck and some x-factor action going on in each of the noted three areas.

X-factor 1: outside linebackers and extra possessions

In the extra possessions department, UW might have a little bit of an advantage not so much because of special teams but because of turnovers.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington
One of these in the Fiesta Bowl could make Tevis Bartlett a UW legend.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

It is true that Penn State has generated more turnovers (24) than the Huskies (21) have this year. But Penn State has feasted on fumble recoveries (14 to UW’s 8). Fumble recoveries are often more “lucky” plays than an interception given all of the ways a ball can bounce and where a player might happen to be when a ball gets loose. This area might be one of slight UW advantage.

A look at the stats reveals that UW has had more success than Penn State in forcing the teams on their schedule to turn the ball over more than their average. This, I think, can be attributed to UW generally using more players in coverage and generating more interceptions off of those kinds of short passes that quarterbacks often take for granted. In this way, the play of our rush ends and outside linebackers - and I’m thinking specifically about both Tevis Bartlett and Keishawn Bierria - as zone defenders is x-factor number one for UW.

X-factor 2: offensive efficiency and the threat of the blitz

An efficient offense is one that generally stays ahead of the chains and can convert third downs at a greater than average rate. Efficiency is important if you don’t want to lose a football game, but it often isn’t enough to win those games alone. If you happened to watch the Seahawks beat the Cowboys in Dallas last weekend, you know exactly of what it is I speak.

Still, you greatly increase your odds of generating explosive plays and reducing extra possessions for your opponent when your offense is efficient. Therefore, gaining an edge in this category will be important if UW wants to swing momentum in their favor.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington
Austin Joyner and Tevis Bartlett have both had success in their limited blitz opportunities this season.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We as fans often look to our own team’s offense when assessing from where an efficiency edge may come. The thing with UW is that they already have an efficient offense. Their success rate on offensive plays, which generally refers to plays that get the offense ahead of the sticks or a first down, is 48.5% on the season - good for 6th in the country.

It’s hard to get much better.

However, Penn State has nearly as efficient an offense. Their 47.1% success rate is 12th in the country. To get an advantage in this area, I think that UW has to take some of that efficiency away from the Nittany Lions.

UW is already good at making teams play from behind the sticks, but they are not as good as Penn State in that department. This can be explained mostly by Pete Kwiatkowski’s conservative scheme and UW’s general reluctance to deploy blitzers as instigators of negative plays.

Against mediocre competition, the strategy of letting Greg Gaines and Vita Vea play Donkey Kong with the opponent’s offensive line with seven or eight man in pass defense generally makes sense. If you wanted to argue that this strategy might well work given the advantage that UW’s interior d-line appears to have over Penn State’s offensive line, I’d probably agree with you that UW ought to win those specific battles more than half the time.

However, the Huskies are facing a Penn State team that has more offensive weapons and a better collection of playmakers than any other team they’ve squared off against all year. Generating negative plays, including a few extra sacks, will go a long way in helping to establish both a field position and time of possession advantages.

I can only see this happening if UW is able to establish a high success rate with its blitzers. Generating sacks, creating TFLs and forcing throwaway passes are all positive outcomes that UW must be able to realize in at least two-thirds of their blitz attempts.

The x-factor, then, is how the coaching staff deploys a creative blitz scheme in order to confuse Penn State and create opportunities for those negative plays. They don’t necessarily have to blitz a lot ... but they have to have a high success rate. This could well involve more utilization of secondary blitzes than what we’ve seen this year (Austin Joyner has had some success in this role) in addition to more pass rush action from Tevis Bartlett and Connor O’Brien than what we might be expecting. This might also be one of those times where we see something unusual like brining in a DJ Beavers and sliding Bierria over into a BUCK position on a few snaps.

You never know.

X-factor 3: Explosive plays and the return of Hunter Bryant

This one is obvious. Nothing correlates to winning football as well as explosive plays.

UW scores about one-tenth of a point less than Penn State does on a per play basis. This reflects the greater overall explosiveness that Penn State has in it’s offense thanks in large part to both the threat of Saquon Barkley breaking a big one (he has 10 plays of over 40 yards on the year ... UW as a team has 11) and the headiness of QB Trace McSorely in getting balls to receivers, like Barkley and TE Mike Gesicki, in enough space for them to generate yards after the catch.

NCAA Football: California at Washington
Hunter Bryant has “x-factor” written all over him should he be able to return for UW in the Fiesta Bowl.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Huskies have not been able to generate these kinds of chunk plays, especially in their passing game. A big part of the steep decline in their yards per attempt - which is a great proxy for measuring explosiveness in the passing game - can be explained by something other than John Ross having gone off the NFL purgatory known as Cincinnati.

They haven’t had access to a player on the field not named Dante Pettis who QB Jake Browning trusts to win a 50/50 ball for about half the season.

The return of Hunter Bryant, should he be healthy enough to go, changes that formula for Browning and the Huskies.

The true freshman tight end had emerged as that kind of player before his injury early in the UCLA game last October. Browning was increasingly putting the ball out there with confidence that Bryant would at the very least prevent an interception if not outright catch it and make a big play out of it.

Ironically, it was one such play that resulted in Bryant’s knee injury.

As a receiver, Bryant not only presents a large catch radius for Browning to target, but he has the potential to create opportunities for both the running attack and for other receivers as a decoy. He commands more attention from the safeties than would a guy like a Will Dissly and he has the ability to empty out zones that could be utilized for YAC by other receivers.

Adding even an extra three or four yards in YAC to UW’s current average for receivers would be a huge contribution to this offense. It could also be a critical x-factor in this game.

These are the best judgements that I have in what factors might swing some kind of meaningful advantage to UW in the Fiesta Bowl. Whether or not any of them can materialize remains to be seen. However, none of these notions are “long-shots” and each of them are within the capability of the Huskies to deliver on.

Of course, they also within the capability of Penn State to counter.

And that is what makes this matchup so dawg-gone interesting for Husky fans everywhere.