The No. 11 Washington Huskies take on the No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions in tomorrow’s PlayStation Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. It will be just the third matchup in the history of the two storied programs, and the first since 1983, with Penn State owning a 2-0 record against the Dawgs. As of Friday morning, Vegas Insider favored Penn State to win by two points, while ESPN’s Football Power Index gave the Nittany Lions a 54 percent chance to earn the victory. What result do the Dawg Pound writers expect to read on the scoreboard at game’s end?
If nothing else, the Fiesta Bowl promises to be a competitive contest between two evenly matched and talented teams. That’s something the Huskies have experienced precious few times this season, and should be an entertaining affair for fans no matter the outcome.
The premiere matchup in this contest will be Washington’s stellar rushing defense against Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who spent much of 2017 as the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Barkley’s stat line this season can be described somewhere between “impressive” and “elite” — 1,134 yards, 16 touchdowns and 5.7 yards per carry — but make no mistake, there are few players in the nation more difficult to bring down on first contact. Part of the reason Washington struggled so mightily to contain Stanford’s Bryce Love was uncharacteristically poor tackling; if the defense doesn’t play fundamentally sound football Saturday against the Nittany Lions, Barkley could very well end his Penn State career with a performance for the ages.
When the Huskies take the field on offense, they will find that the Penn State defense has few weaknesses for them to exploit. The Nittany Lions have allowed just 6.0 yards per attempt to opposing quarterbacks (virtually identical to Washington’s 5.9), and have corralled 10 interceptions while allowing 12 touchdowns. On the ground, Penn State’s 3.38 yards allowed per rush ranks 14th in the nation. Worst of all for Washington, the Penn State scoring defense is unquestionably elite, allowing just 18.6 points per game to Power 5 opponents.
Washington’s best chance for victory, then, comes in executing a balanced offense that minimizes third-and-long situations. A workhorse 30-carry, 120-yard performance from Myles Gaskin would go a long way toward achieving that goal. Meanwhile, Jake Browning needs to be smart enough to take what the Penn State defense gives him, and distribute the ball to a variety of receivers in order to keep the secondary from keying on Dante Pettis and/or Hunter Bryant, assuming both (or either) players are healthy enough to see the field.
The Huskies have struggled mightily for a generation to win in the desert, and Penn State is among the best opponents Washington will have played in 2017. But good things happen to Chris Petersen in the Fiesta Bowl, and I think the Dawgs will exorcise their Arizona demons on Saturday to the tune of a narrow fourth-quarter victory that comes down to the final possession. Call it Washington 27, Penn State 24.
I hate making predictions for games that are good matchups.
On one hand, Saquon Barkley scares me a bunch. This is because I have eyes and basic football comprehension abilities. On the other hand, Washington matches up better -- ya know, relatively -- against him than they did against the scheme in which Bryce Love was used. Stanford's power game is just such a game-changer against this defense and, with PSU going more zone, I feel much better about the Dawgs' chances at...not eliminating Barkley, but for lack of better words, keeping him half in check, I suppose? After all, we've seen other defenses do that before this year; it's not impossible.
Another thing I'm tentatively more worried about than Barkley (again, relatively, for those lurking PSU fans who feel I'm not respecting him enough), is Trace McSorley's escapability. By the end of the season, UW's pass rush evolved into a big ol' strength, but McSorley's no Luke Falk or Josh Rosen; he's a mobile quarterback and that's always stressful to watch. That combined with the potential mismatches of Mike Gesicki (6'6") versus Joyner (5'10") or Bryant (5'8") or even Murphy (5'11") just sounds like a terrible time for Dawg fans. Just writing this I'm getting flashbacks of The Unending Stanford Third Down Completions of 2K17.
Fortunately, if there's something I really like about this matchup, it's that, on film, McSorley throws off-balance quiiiiite a bit. His footwork can get sloppy under pressure and, if the secondary is gonna make up for a passing game that will inevitably have its share of successes, it'll be by taking advantage of any poor throws McSorley makes when spooked. Luckily for Washington, it looks like the Huskies' defensive line could do some damage in that department to assist in this process.
On the other line, it feels closer. PSU's defensive line is better than I was expecting from the stuff I'd heard about them but their weakness is a tendency to over-pursue or, at least, be acting as four different pass rushers instead of one unit that's working to collapse the pocket. I could see both Jake's mobility shining or him getting a bit beat up. Obviously if it's the former, PSU fans will get frustrated, and if it's more of the latter, we'll have a pretty bad day, especially since the Nittany Lions' fantastic secondary isn't gonna make Jake's job any easier.
Lastly, if there's one thing on offense that feels like it really swings in UW's favor, it's Coleman in space and Gaskin's slipperiness. Neither of these guys will have their biggest games (probably, anyway) but it looks like they could both have a few frustrating plays for the Lions. Especially in the case of Coleman, provided he can get into the second level of the defense, his angle manipulation matches up well against the linebackers and safeties, while his strength against the corners bodes well.
Lastly, we'll probably lose because THIS GAME IS IN THE F***ING DESERT AKA SATAN'S PERSONAL LAIR OF EVIL AND TERRIBLENESS.
Final prediction: I guess I'm gonna go with UW 28 - PSU 24? Whatever happens, I don't see either team scoring more than 30. Maaaaybe 35 but that's pushing it.
Maybe it’s just the Star Wars fever going through the air but I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I understand conceptually that Washington State was a good team and that beating the Cougars by a giant margin is a sign of how good the Huskies are but it just felt expected. This Penn State team is infinitely more varied on offense and presents an entirely different set of challenges which Washington hasn’t shown as great an ability to counter.
I trust the Washington defense to do their part and keep Penn State below 30 points but the offense really concerns me here. Jake Browning is going to have to start trusting both his offensive line and his receivers to make plays because guys aren’t going to be running wide open all over the place. He’s going to have to be willing to stand in the pocket and wait that extra second to give his receiver time, knowing a hit is coming after he lets go.
This game will probably come down to the health of UW’s offensive skill position players. If Dante Pettis, Hunter Bryant, and Lavon Coleman are all at or close to 100% then the offense has a chance to be the balanced masterpiece it has been in brief flashes this year. If not, then I’m not sure if the Huskies can put up enough points to pull this one off.
Washington 20, Penn State 27.
These are two very similar teams which are pretty evenly matched up across the board. Both UW and PSU like to rely heavily on their amazing RBs with Gaskin and Barkley being the focal point of their teams’ offenses. The Huskies have been excellent against backs this year, allowing only 92.3 per game, best in the country. However, they were gashed by Bryce Love a couple weeks ago, which leads me to believe that Barkley—whom I believe to be slightly better than Love—will have a reasonable amount of success, albeit against an excellent UW defense. Of course, the same can be expected for Gaskin, who will be facing a quite stingy Penn State defense as well, which is only giving up 3.4 yards per carry.
Given that the rushing attacks of both teams are somewhat evenly matched - I believe whoever wins this game comes down to the quarterbacks. Trace McSorley has been a lot better than Jake Browning this year, throwing for nearly 700 more yards and 8 more touchdowns. McSorley has also had a tremendous year on the ground, rushing for 431 yards and 11 TDs. Browning will need to play a lot better than he has over the course of the season to keep up with PSU's high-flying offense; completely relying on Gaskin and the defense won't work against such a top-ranked opponent.
The numbers seem to give the advantage to Penn State, but I'm (irrationally) going with my heart over my head on this one, and picking the Dawgs. Jake Browning has the game of his life, Myles Gaskin ends his UW career with a bang, the defense rises to the occasion to shut down Barkley, and the Huskies triumph in Arizona.
Washington 23, Penn State 19.
For the second year in a row, Washington is playing in a major bowl game against a big name opponent. Back-to-back 10-win seasons to boot, and the Husky program is making great progress. Penn State has been on a similar trajectory, and like many Husky fans, would view a win in this game as proof that the team is taking steps forward.
When Washington has the ball, it will be all about getting Myles Gaskin going. With an inconsistent and beat-up pass game, Washington will have to get going on the ground to have any success in the air. Marcus Allen at safety for Penn State will make things very difficult in that regard. The rest of the secondary is talented and experienced as well. The health and status of Hunter Bryant will be crucial in determining just how effective the Husky pass game is. He's still second on the team in receptions even after missing the last 4 games of the year - he's a huge weapon. If he's not able to go, expect Salvon Ahmed to get a lot more touches to try and stretch the field.
On defense, it will be all up to Greg Gaines and Vita Vea to blow up Penn State's offense before it has a chance to get going. Although they've been bottled up at times, Penn State has a lot of weapons, starting in the backfield with Trace McSorley and all-everything running back Saquon Barkley, who they like to line up all over the field. He's not only a load at 229 pounds, he has speed, and has caught 47 passes for nearly 600 yards. The linebackers will have their hands full dealing with him. On the outside, Juwan Johnson presents a matchup problem at 6-4. Paired with explosive 6-6 TE Mike Gesicki, they are just the type of taller pass catchers that have given the typically strong Husky secondary fits.
I think Washington's defense will be the best unit on the field come Saturday. The interior of the DL will give Penn State issues and open up rushing lanes for Tevis Bartlett, Ryan Bowman, and the outside guys. What really concerns me is Washington's offense. I'm just not sure I've seen enough from them against the better defenses they've faced this year to think they'll be able to consistently move the ball against Penn State. I worry that the Husky defense will play great, but that costly 3rd down conversions will keep drives alive for Penn State. Trace McSorley has quick feet, and with a huge TE like Gesicki, and a RB like Barkley, they can make the key plays when needed. On special teams, the field goal kicking has improved dramatically over the course of the year, but it's still hard to know what to expect.
This all adds up to an extremely close and competitive game that will be decided by just a few plays. If Hunter Bryant were definitely playing and was 100%, I might feel differently. But as it stands, I'm calling it...
Penn State 27, Washington 24.
There is no good way to predict this game. Whether your preference is advanced stats, traditional stats, or the eyeball test, these two teams look similar across the board. For every nitty advantage that you can spot for one team (say, UW's interior d-line versus Penn State's o-line), you can find an equally compelling nitty advantage for the other (e.g. Penn State's big receivers against UW's smaller secondary).
This game will come down to preparation, x-factors, and a few lucky breaks, all of which are impossible to predict. That said, I do think UW's passing game will have more success than most fans expect, just as I suspect Penn State will have more success rushing the ball than what we are used to seeing.
In the end, I expect this game will come down to fourth quarter play. I like UW to have an advantage here thanks in part to their depth on defense as well as the physical toll their rushing attack should take on the Penn State d-line. I'm envisioning Jake Browning putting together the definitive game-winning drive of his UW career and the Huskies stealing a close one.
Washington 31, Penn State 30