Fiesta Bowl preview: No. 9 Penn State vs. No. 11 Washington

Fiesta Bowl preview: No. 9 Penn State vs. No. 11 Washington

Just four points separated Penn State from a perfect record and a Big Ten title game berth. From there, who knows what happens. Alas, the Nittany Lions landed in the Fiesta with a matchup vs. Washington, a playoff participant last year. No doubt, this is one of the most enticing bowl matchups in the postseason landscape.

This will be the third all-time meeting between the schools and second in a bowl game. Penn State is 2-0 all-time against the Huskies with the 13-10 win in the 1983 Aloha Bowl and a 21-7 win at Washington in 1921.

This is Penn State’s seventh appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, which is the most of any bowl in program history. However, this is Penn State’s first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl since the 1996 season when the Nittany Lions topped Texas, 38-15. The Nittany Lions are 6-0 in Fiesta Bowl games.

The Nittany Lions are playing in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year under James Franklin and making their second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearance, after winning the 2016 Big Ten Championship and facing USC in the Rose Bowl. Penn State has lost two straight bowl games for the first time since the 2010-11 seasons and for just the third time ever. The Nittany Lions have never lost three straight bowl games.

An interesting dynamic for Penn State: The Nittany Lions will be without offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who took the Mississippi State head coaching job. QB coach and passing game coordinator Ricky Rahne has been promoted to offensive coordinator.

This will be Washington’s first Fiesta Bowl junket. The Huskies have earned a bowl berth for an eighth consecutive season. Among Pac-12 programs, only Stanford can claim a longer active bowl streak than that. The berth is also the eighth consecutive different bowl to which the Huskies have been invited.

Washington has been sound on both sides of the ball all season. The Huskies are sixth in the nation in scoring defense (14.5 ppg), fifth in total defense (277.4 ypg) and lead the nation in rush defense (92.3 ypg). Washington also ranks in the Top 20 in scoring offense (36.9 ppg).

This tilt offers a great running back matchup. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is second in the country in all-purpose yards with 2,154 and 21 touchdowns. Washington’s Myles Gaskin has been very productive, as well, as he ran for 1,282 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.

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FIESTA BOWL
Who: Penn State (10-2) vs. Washington (10-2)
When: 4 p.m. ET, Dec. 30
Where: U. of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

Player on the spot: QB Trace McSorley. He is one of the most dynamic signal-callers in the nation, leading the Big Ten in passing (269.0 ypg). He hits 65 percent of his passes for 3,228 yards with 26 TDs and eight picks. In many ways, McSorley is the guy who stirs the drink in State College. It will be fun to watch McSorley dual with UW QB Jake Browning in what will be one of the better quarterback battles in the postseason.

Best individual matchup: It won’t get much better than Penn State RB Saquon Barkley vs. Washington DT Vita Vea. Barkley has picked up a lot of hardware since the season ended, earning the Big Ten Silver Football as league MVP for a second year in a row among other honors. He is No. 4 in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,134 yards and a league-high 16 rushing TDs. And Barkley is No. 1 in all-purpose yards with 2,154 yards (179.5 ypg). Vea was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Vea is the first Husky to earn Pac-12 Player of the Year on defense since 1996. The 6-5, 340-pounder is the centerpiece of a Husky defense that led the conference in rushing, scoring and total defense.

Best unit matchup: Penn State defensive line vs. Washington o-line. The Nittany Lions defensive front has come on. The unit can bring the heat with players like Shaka Toney and Shareef Miller along with Kevin Givens. And Curtis Cothran is a force inside. The Huskies can get a push up front behind guys like Kaleb McGary, Coleman Shelton and Nick Harris. They helped Washington notch 2,278 yards rushing and yielded only 16 sacks.

Number: 27, games in a row Penn State QB Trace McSorley has tossed a touchdown pass. He’s the second player in Big Ten history to throw 25 touchdown passes and run for 10 touchdowns in a season. And McSorley is the first Penn State player with multiple 3,000-yard passing seasons and the third player with 7,000 career passing yards. Want more? McSorley has been responsible for a school-record 37 touchdowns this season.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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