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Fiesta Bowl Preview and Prediction: Washington vs. Penn State

Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Saquon Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

The New Year’s Six bowl slate continues on Saturday, as Washington and Penn State meet in the Fiesta Bowl. Considering both teams finished 10-2 in the regular season and claimed at least a share of second place in their respective division, the showdown in Glendale, Ariz. between the Huskies and Nittany Lions should be one of the better bowl games outside of the College Football Playoff.

Jake Browning College Football

Washington entered the 2017 season hoping to build off last season’s success. However, a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff wasn’t in the cards, as the Huskies stumbled in road matchups against Stanford and Arizona State. The two defeats dropped Washington out of the mix to play for the Pac-12 title, but coach Chris Petersen’s team is trending up. The Huskies are led by the Pac-12’s best defense, limiting opponents to just 14.5 points a game. On offense, the junior duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin headlined an attack that averaged 36.9 points a contest this season. While the production was there for the most part, Washington struggled to generate big plays without receiver John Ross and lost standout tackle Trey Adams to injury midway through the year.

For the first time since 2008-09, Penn State has won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons. The Nittany Lions finished 11-3 last fall and entered the 2017 campaign with CFB Playoff hopes. Penn State fell short of that goal due to losses at Ohio State and Michigan State, but similar to its counterparts in the Fiesta Bowl, this is a program on the rise. Coach James Franklin continues to upgrade the talent on the recruiting trail, and there’s a strong foundation in place for 2018. Bowl history doesn’t necessarily mean much in this matchup, but it’s noteworthy Penn State is 6-0 in previous Fiesta Bowl trips.

Penn State holds a 2-0 edge over Washington in all-time matchups. However, these two teams have not played since 1983.

Fiesta Bowl: Penn State (10-2) vs. Washington (10-2)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 30 at 4 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Penn State -2

Three Things to Watch

1. Penn State’s Offense Against Washington’s Defense

This matchup on Dec. 30 will provide some insight into Penn State’s offense without Joe Moorhead calling the plays. After a successful two-year stint in Happy Valley, Moorhead departed to take over as the next head coach at Mississippi State. Moorhead brought drastic improvement to the Nittany Lions’ offense from 2016-17 and will be missed. Franklin decided not to go outside of the staff for a new play-caller, as assistant Ricky Rahne was promoted to offensive coordinator. How will Rahne fare in the chess match against one of the nation’s top defenses?

When Penn State has the ball, all eyes will be on the dynamic duo of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. These two players were the driving forces behind an offense that averaged 41.6 points a game in 2017. Barkley rushed for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season and is likely headed to the NFL after this game. McSorley threw for 3,228 yards and 26 touchdowns, with DaeSean Hamiltion (48 catches) and tight end Mike Gesicki (51 grabs) working as the top options in a solid receiving corps.

While Penn State isn’t hurting for talent at the skill positions, the offense has struggled at times to generate a consistent push on the ground. Additionally, plays of 40 yards or more dropped from 30 to 13 this year. A big reason for the rough patches this offense has experienced in 2017 is due to the line. And the challenge for this group isn’t going to get any easier in the Fiesta Bowl. Washington’s front is capable of wreaking havoc all afternoon, especially in the form of standout lineman Vita Vea and a solid group of linebackers.

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The Huskies ranked first in the Pac-12 by limiting opponents to just 2.6 yards a carry and 92.3 rushing yards a contest. Can Penn State’s line block well enough for Barkley to find rushing lanes? And when McSorley drops back to pass, will he consistently have enough time to scan the field? McSorley’s mobility could be critical in this battle, but the trenches are going to be crucial to the outcome of Saturday’s contest.

Related: Predictions for Every 2017-18 Bowl Game

2. Can Washington Generate Big Plays on Offense?

Washington’s offense hasn’t slipped too far on the stat sheet from last season. The Huskies led the Pac-12 by averaging 41.8 points a game last fall but fell to 36.9 per contest in 2017. Additionally, the offense dropped its per-play total from 6.8 to 6.45. Overall output per game isn’t necessarily the best way to judge an offense, but Washington’s average fell from 456.9 yards a contest to 411.7 in 2017.

While the overall totals weren’t much different from last fall, the Huskies struggled to replicate their big-play ability from 2016. Over 14 games last season, Washington generated 21 plays of 40 yards or more. But that total slipped to just 11 in 2017. The drop in big plays is largely due to the departure of receiver John Ross, and pass protection was an issue in losses to Arizona State and Stanford.

Quarterback Jake Browning completed his third season as the starter by completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 2,544 yards and 18 touchdowns. Senior Dante Pettis was the clear No. 1 target for Browning after catching 62 passes for 721 yards and seven touchdowns, but the secondary options need to step up. Freshman tight end Hunter Bryant (22 catches) could return to the lineup after missing the final four games of the year due to injury. If Bryant is able to return, he will add a valuable outlet over the middle of the field for an offense that only eclipsed 205 passing yards just once over the final six contests.

While there are question marks about Washington’s passing game, the ground attack still averaged 189.8 yards a game. The catalyst for that production is junior Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the last three years. Gaskin led the team with 1,282 yards and 19 scores, with Lavon Coleman finishing second at 396 yards. Freshman Salvon Ahmed (387 yards) is another intriguing weapon for Petersen. Coordinator Jonathan Smith left to be the head coach at Oregon State, leaving receivers coach Matt Lubick as the play-caller for this matchup. Don’t expect many changes for the Huskies, but it’s likely Lubick and Petersen will make a few tweaks for Saturday’s game.

Can Washington’s offense consistently put together drives against a Penn State defense limiting opponents to 15.5 points a game? The Nittany Lions only allow 3.4 yards a carry and gave up just four runs of 30 yards or more. Under the direction of coordinator Brent Pry, Penn State ranked third in the Big Ten in sacks generated (38) and fourth in yards per play allowed (4.69). If the Nittany Lions keep Gaskin in check and force Browning into third-and-long situations all night, Pry’s defense should be able to keep Washington’s offense in check.

Related: College Football's 2017 All-America Team

3. Turnovers

With a tight game anticipated, the turnover battle will be a huge component of Saturday’s matchup. Both teams have excelled in this area, as Washington is tied for 12th nationally at plus-11, and Penn State is tied at fifth at plus-14. Additionally, neither team has been particularly generous with giveaways. Both teams have lost just 10 turnovers, which is among the fewest of any program in the nation in 2017.

Which team will win the turnover battle or create a game-changing takeaway? One mistake could be especially costly on Saturday afternoon.   

Final Analysis

This is a tough matchup to get a read on. On paper, these two teams are even. Washington’s defense should be able to take advantage of Penn State’s offensive line, but the Huskies will have to keep running back Saquon Barkley in check for all four quarters. When Washington has the ball, Gaskin needs to have a big game to keep Browning out of obvious passing downs. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt for the Huskies to attack downfield some on first downs to stay on schedule and out of third-and-long situations. Considering how even these two teams are, one or two big plays or a turnover might decide the outcome. Also, special teams will be a factor, especially with Washington receiver Dante Pettis on punt returns. With Barkley and McSorley on Penn State’s sideline, the guess here is this duo produces just enough points to edge the Huskies.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Prediction: Penn State 27, Washington 24