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Grading the Game: Washington Huskies vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Washington made a late, valiant effort to mount a comeback in the second half. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s miserable performance that marked the game’s first 30 minutes.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington The Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK

(First of all, my apologies for not getting this to you, dear readers, until today. A combination of holiday travel, influenza and the head cold from hell has conspired to keep me away from my keyboard until the last few hours. Thank you for your patience.)

The final scoreboard says that the Penn State Nittany Lions beat the Washington Huskies by a slim margin of seven points, with a final score of 35-28. If you didn’t watch the game, you could be forgiven for assuming the game was a competitive back-and-forth contest between two evenly matched teams.

Those of us who watched the game from start to finish, however, know better. Penn State dominated this game from the opening kickoff until the final whistle, while Washington’s play was characterized by the offense’s inability to stay on the field alongside the defense’s inability to get off of it. More than anything else, this game can be summarized by the teams’ third- and fourth-down conversion rates: Penn State converted an astounding 14 of 18 attempts, while Washington turned just eight of 16 attempts into first downs.

Rushing Offense: D

In the fourth quarter, Myles Gaskin broke free for a magnificent 69-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation that ultimately proved to be the game’s final scoring play. Outside of that play, however, Washington was positively dreadful on the ground. Discounting that long touchdown run, Gaskin and Lavon Coleman gained 29 and 11 yards on 13 and four carries, respectively, with the only other scoring play being Gaskin’s 13-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Penn State also brought down Washington’s rushers four times in the backfield for a loss of nine yards. Perhaps most importantly, Penn State’s defensive line maintained an almost military control of the line of scrimmage, meeting Washington’s runners at or behind the line of scrimmage on virtually every running play.

Passing Offense: D

On a day when they couldn’t get much going on the ground, the Huskies badly needed to breathe some life into their offense via a competent air attack. Penn State, however, had other plans. The Nittany Lions were a constant source of harassment for Jake Browning, flushing the pro-style quarterback from the pocket with an alarming regularity and sacking him four times.

Dante Pettis was sidelined for much of the game, likely due to the ankle injury he suffered in the Apple Cup, which resulted in sophomore Aaron Fuller becoming Browning’s No. 1 target in the game. To his credit, Fuller had a beautiful 28-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, but gained just 33 yards on his five other catches throughout the game. Freshman All-American tight end Hunter Bryant made his first appearance since suffering a leg injury on Oct. 28 versus UCLA, but only played a handful of snaps and wasn’t targeted in the passing game.

Browning’s final stats on the day show 18 completions on 28 attempts for 175 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. In third-down situations, he completed four of seven passes for one touchdown and two first-downs; the remaining four attempts resulted in fourth-down plays.

Rushing Defense: C+

Saquon Barkley, in case you hadn’t noticed yet, is an absolute beast. He’ll make some NFL fan base very happy for the next decade, if his professional career resembles anything like his run in Happy Valley.

That being said, Washington did a better-than-expected job of limiting Barkley on a per-play basis. Aside from his monster, nearly-game-breaking 92-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Washington’s defense held the likely first-round draft pick to 45 yards on 17 carries, including a two-yard touchdown. However, the Huskies struggled to contain Trace McSorley on option and scramble plays, as the dual-threat quarterback added 60 yards on 12 carries, including a 24-yard gain during a third-quarter Penn State touchdown drive.

Passing Defense: F

Let’s put it this way: When the Huskies needed a stop on third down, and Trace McSorley dropped back to pass, Penn State converted almost every single time.

Specifically, on third- and fourth-down pass attempts, McSorley was 13-for-13 for 200 yards, two touchdowns and nine first downs. Just two of his throws went for distances that fell short of the sticks.

Of course, McSorley didn’t do this all on his own. The 6-4 Juwan Johnson and 6-6 Mike Gesicki feasted on Washington’s shorter defensive backs, and the duo caught six passes apiece for 66 and 62 yards, respectively. The Penn State offensive line made McSorley’s day possible by providing stellar protection, with the Huskies registering one sack and zero QB pressures.

Overall, McSorley completed 32 of 41 passes for 342 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. On the positive side, Byron Murphy and Austin Joyner secured the two picks (with an assist from Ben Burr-Kirven’s face mask, in Joyner’s case).

Special Teams: B-

It’s never a good thing when the unquestioned best player on your team is the punter, but that’s the situation Washington found itself in Saturday. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that a key reason the Huskies were able to hold the game to one possession in the fourth quarter was Joel Whitford’s ability to flip the field and force the Penn State offense to drive long distances. Whitford boomed his five punts an average of 49.0 yards, with the Penn State offense starting its average ensuing drive at their own 34.6-yard line. On a day when the Husky offense couldn’t get much going, especially in the first half, that sort of performance is invaluable.

Meanwhile, Jake Browning landed a beautiful pooch punt at the Penn State 7-yard line in the second quarter, and Tristan Vizcaino made all four of his extra-point attempts. On the other hand, Salvon Ahmed’s four kick returns gave the Husky an average starting drive position at just the 15.5-yard line.

Coaching: D

It might be tempting to give Washington’s coaches a pass for the offense’s horrific start to the game (just six plays for one yard in the game’s first 13:26) due to the departure of the team’s offensive coordinator to take on a head coaching position — that is, until it is pointed out that Penn State was in the exact same situation, and the Nittany Lions ran 13 plays for 116 yards and a touchdown during the same stretch of time.

Simply put, Washington’s players did not show themselves ready to compete in this game, and the blame for that falls squarely on Chris Petersen and his staff. They deserve credit for keeping the game competitive in the second half, when the Huskies outscored Penn State 14-7. However, it’s worth remembering that Washington never had a win probability greater than 30 percent following the first quarter, according to ESPN. In addition, Penn State’s 545 yards of offense are the second-most the Huskies have given up in the Chris Petersen era, trailing the 573 yards that Eastern Washington put up on the Huskies in the second game of his first season.


What overall grade do you give the Huskies for their performance against the Nittany Lions?

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