Associated Press, December 27, 2017
(AP) The Fiesta Bowl matchup comes with a full dose of deja vu for both Penn State's program and Washington's coach.
No. 9 Penn State is returning to the area — if not the exact site — of one of its greatest bowl triumphs, the 14-10 victory over then-No. 1 Miami that brought the Nittany Lions their second consensus national championship after the 1986 season. They have won all six previous Fiesta Bowl appearances.
Coach Chris Petersen of No. 11 Washington is back on the turf where his creative juices overflowed in a scintillating 43-42 overtime victory by Boise State — Petersen's previous head coaching gig — over Oklahoma to cap the 2005 season.
That game was made even more memorable when Broncos running back Ian Johnson dropped to one knee and proposed to girlfriend Chrissy Popadics on national TV after scoring the game-winning two-point conversion in overtime.
Like everything the Broncos tried, that worked out, too.
"Obviously Penn State has a tremendous history with this bowl game," Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. "Got a lot of respect for the University of Washington. Got a lot of respect for coach Petersen, what he's been able to do over his career. I think it has a chance to be a fantastic bowl game."
Penn State (10-2) was a defensive stop here and a scoring drive there from a possible berth in the college football playoff and shot at a another national championship, but back-to-back losses to Ohio State (39-38) and Michigan State (27-24) after the Nittany Lions reached 7-0 and No. 2 in the AP poll doomed that. They have lost three games in the last year-and-a-half, by a total of seven points.
"You know, I guess for us, we try not to really think about it that way," Franklin said of Penn State's close calls. "Obviously there's a lot of outside noise with fans and media about those types of things. Preseason rankings, midseason rankings don't really matter. It's where you end up at the end of the season."
Washington (10-2) had a perfect home season and reached No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll before an upset loss at Arizona State played a large part in keeping the Huskies from their second straight appearance in the national playoff.
That loss to the Sun Devils, like Penn State's victory over Miami over 29 years ago, was played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. This will be played at the Arizona Cardinals' University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
"When we heard we were coming back, there was a lot of jumping around and smiling faces … until we found out it was Penn State," Petersen said. "Then we said, 'Oh-oh, be careful what you wish for.' This is what college football is all about. This is what you play so hard for during the season, to go to a big-time bowl game like this and play against another really, really storied program. Great program."
Junior quarterback Trace McSorley, junior halfback Saquon Barkley and a quartet of 40-catch receivers have led Penn State to an average of 41.6 points and 453.3 yards per game. The Nittany Lions entered the bowl season seventh in the FBS in scoring and McSorley provides a double threat, having passed for 26 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more.
Barkley, whose resume includes a dynamic Rose Bowl performance a year ago, has shown the ability to beat a defense in all sorts of ways. He has 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing and 47 passes receptions for 594 yards. He has two touchdowns among his 15 kickoff returns and also threw an option pass for a touchdown. Barkley had a school-record 348 all-purpose yards and career-high 211 yards rushing in a 21-19 victory over Iowa.
"I cannot imagine that there's a better player in all of college football," Franklin said after the Iowa game, which McSorley won with a touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson as time expired.
Quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and consensus All-American receiver/kick returner Dante Pettis have provided the impetus for the Huskies, averaging 44.3 points and 411.7 yards per game.
Browning has thrown for 2,544 yards and 18 touchdowns, and he holds the career touchdown record with 77. He ranks third in the FBS with a 68.8 completion percentage. Gaskin has rushed for 1,282 yards and 19 touchdowns. He had nine rushing touchdowns in the final three games of the season and has a school-record 43 rushing touchdowns and 47 total touchdowns.
Pettis has 62 receptions for 721 yards and seven touchdowns, and he is at his most explosive when fielding punts. He had four punt returns for touchdown this season to set the NCAA Division I career record with nine, breaking a record held by Texas Tech's Wes Welker and Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins. Pettis had a touchdown return in the first three games of the season.
Pettis is expected to play after suffering an ankle injury in the regular-season finale against Washington State.
"Very explosive player for us, our best receiver," Browning said of Pettis. "And he's able to do a lot of different things for us. He's thrown the ball a few times. He's caught it. Sweeps, reverses. Just trying to get the ball in his hands."
Each team has scored at least 30 points 10 times this season. The teams have met twice, the most recent in the Nittany Lions' 13-10 victory in the 1983 Aloha Bowl. Penn State also won the regular-season meeting in 1921.
The last time Petersen was here with Boise, he used a hook-and-ladder play to tie the game as regulation time expired, a wide receiver touchdown pass for an overtime score and Johnson's Statue of Liberty play for the game-winning two-point conversion. Penn State is well aware.
"This team knows how to prepare," Franklin said. "They have the right mindset. They have the right approach. We try not to ever get too high and try not to ever get too low and just focus on our preparation and our attitude and that's served us well."