WASHINGTON HUSKIES (10-2)
at PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (10-2)
University of Phoenix Stadium – Glendale, AZ
Kickoff: Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET
Line: Penn State -3, Total: 55
An overlooked New Year's Six matchup offers an opportunity for fireworks, as Washington takes on Penn State.
Chris Peterson and the Washington Huskies were the college football world's object of fixation last season, as the Huskies completed the rare transition from potentially overhyped preseason sleeper to actual playoff participant. Everyone seemingly lost interest after their semifinal loss to Alabama, but UDub went on to have another excellent year in 2017, a 10-2 campaign that was admittedly devoid of big wins until a 41-14 walloping of Wazzu in the Apple Cup. The Huskies are back in a big boy bowl game this year, but get a more manageable opponent than Alabama in Penn State. The Nittany Lions might've been the biggest story in the sport for the first half of the year, as they raced out to a 7-0 start behind the Heisman-worthy running of RB Saquon Barkley. Then PSU lost two straight, Barkley slowed down, and the Big Ten conversation belonged to Ohio State and Wisconsin. But Penn State should have beaten Ohio State, its loss to Michigan State came with a weird 3.5-hour weather delay, and it scored 157 total points in its last three games. The Nittany Lions may now actually be underrated. Since 1992, neutral field favorites averaging between 140 and 190 rushing yards per game (PSU) are 6-26 ATS against non-conference opponents allowing less than 100 yards per game. In the same time frame, games involving a team that has won three out of their last four (PSU) and a team that has won eight out of its last 10 (UW) are 32-7 Under against totals between 49.5 and 56.
Admittedly, part of the reason that Washington has flown under the radar this year is that it has been far less explosive than it was in 2016. QB Jake Browning threw 43 touchdown passes again last year but has only thrown 18 in 2017 heading into this Fiesta Bowl game. He had his first 300-yard game of the year against Utah on November 11th. The running game is less productive, too: RB Myles Gaskin could surpass his 2016 rushing yards stats by the time the Saturday's game is over, but sidekick RB Lavon Coleman might not reach half his output from last season. The running game was the focal point in their recent win over Washington state, as Browning completed 11 of 17 passes for only 92 yards while Gaskin ran wild for 192 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. Freshman RB Salvon Ahmed, who has been more productive than Coleman this year on a per-carry basis, had 82 yards on nine carries. It was Gaskin's fourth 120-plus-rushing yard day in five games; in the one game where he fell short, he had 114 receiving yards against Utah. Expect Penn State to see a heavy dose of him. As for receivers, WR Dante Pettis has seen his stats take a hit thanks to the general decline of the passing offense. But he's easily the team's No. 1 option at receiver, with 62 catches for 721 yards and seven scores on the year. No one else has more than 22 catches, 331 yards or three receiving touchdowns. Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith left the program for the Oregon State head coaching job at the end of the regular season, meaning Washington will be without one of its core game-planners from the Peterson regime.
After his huge games against Iowa and Michigan marked some of the most exciting moments of the first half of the season, Barkley slowed down some. It's not even his fault, really: Defenses stacked the box against him to try and make QB Trace McSorley beat them which, largely, he did. In Barkley's least productive outings—67 total yards against Ohio State, 55 total yards against Rutgers—the Nittany Lions still managed to score 35-plus points. And it's not like the second half of the season has been a total dry spell for Barkley. In a shootout win over Nebraska on November 18th, he ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns, and stacked 66 yards on top of that. Washington allowed 122 rushing yards to Royce Freeman and 166 to Bryce Love in November, so there's precedent for them being beaten by an elite running back. (Only Love actually beat them in a win-loss sense; Washington beat Oregon by 35.) Like Barkley, McSorley entered the year as a Heisman candidate. And like Barkley, while he's fallen out of that conversation, he's still among college football's best players. He holds the impressive distinction of leading Big Ten passers in completion percentage (65.3) and passing yardage (3,228), and his 26-8 TD-INT ratio is perhaps an even greater accomplishment. He was beyond entertaining throwing deep ball after deep ball in last year's Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl games, and there's no reason to believe James Franklin won't be dialing up go routes once again in this year's postseason. Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki, and WRs DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson all have over 500 receiving yards on the year. Gesicki and Hamilton, both Second Team All-Big Ten selections (so is McSorley, Barkley is First Team and OPOTY) combined for 16 receiving touchdowns.