GLENDALE, Ariz. — Maybe Washington should just stay away from the desert for a while.
UW’s initial visit this season to Arizona led to its first loss of the year. This most recent trip brought another. No. 11 UW (10-3) was once down by 21 points, but twice rallied to get within a touchdown. Any hopes of a comeback were dashed with No. 9 Penn State (11-2) owning third down in a 35-28 victory Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Huskies, despite losing their Fiesta debut, ended the year with their 12th campaign of 10 or more wins in the school’s 101-year history. UW is now 2-2 in bowl games under Petersen.
“They got that lead, and it’s hard to catch a good team when they have a big lead,” Petersen said. “They’ve got too many good players. I think the quarterback and the running back are really, really good. And they did a great job.
“I’m proud of our guys for how hard they keep playing. We never questioned their heart. Got a lot of guys that play very, very hard and we’re very proud of them.”
Down 35-21, the Huskies cut it to 35-28 when Myles Gaskin scored on a 69-yard touchdown with 6:52 remaining.
On the following drive, Penn State moved the ball for more than six minutes only to have the drive end with Tyler Davis missing a 45-yard field goal attempt with 34 seconds to go.
UW took over and after Jake Browning threw three straight incompletions, he found Aaron Fuller for a 10-yard catch. Fuller tossed a lateral to Dante Pettis, who went 14 yards only to fumble the ball on an attempted lateral that the Nittany Lions recovered with five seconds remaining.
“It was a hook and lateral and normally, we try to keep the ball alive,” Pettis said. “I didn’t know there was five seconds left, so, I just tried to make a play. Looking back, knowing there was five seconds, I easily could have stepped out of bounds.
“At the time, I was just trying to keep things alive.”
Penn State jumped out to a 14-0 lead with 1:34 to go in the first quarter. UW cut the lead to 14-7 on a 1-yard run by Browning. The Nittany Lions responded with two touchdowns for a 28-7 edge with 9:01 to go in the second quarter.
Gaskin’s 13-yard touchdown run cut it to 28-14 with 4:15 remaining in the half. Whispers of a comeback were ignited when UW went up-tempo on its first drive out of the second half with Browning tossing a 28-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Fuller with 9:57 to go in the quarter.
Surprisingly enough, it was UW’s defense that failed to adjust.
Ranked fifth nationally in total defense, the Huskies had no match for the Nittany Lions on third down.
Penn State, on third-and-4 from the Huskies’ 24, scored when Trace McSorley threw a touchdown to receiver DaeSean Hamilton for a 35-21 lead with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter.
That touchdown pushed Penn State’s third-down success rate to an outrageous 90 percent. Army, which leads all Football Bowl Subdivision schools on third down, converts 55 percent of the time. The Nittany Lions finished 13 for 17 on third down, a 76-percent rate.
“McSorley did a good job of stretching it out on third downs, like Coach Pete said,” Huskies redshirt senior linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “As far as that, just sticking together. It was never a moment where we kind of looked at each and started to criticize each other, started to argue. We stuck together, because that’s who we are.”
UW’s loss means two of its three losses this season have come in Arizona.
The Huskies’ first loss of the campaign was a 13-7 defeat in October to Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
Aside from the defeat, the Huskies lost key players in star left tackle Trey Adams and cornerback Jordan Miller for the year.
UW would make some changes after the loss and would drop only one more contest — a 30-22 defeat at Stanford — en route to reaching the Fiesta.
Gaskin was a major player down the stretch for UW. He ran for more than 120 yards in four of the team’s final five games while running for 11 touchdowns.
He rushed 14 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns against Penn State. The Lynnwood native ended the year with 1,388 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.
Gaskin is one of a few Huskies who are currently contemplating staying in school for one more year or departing to the NFL.
He told The News Tribune he has yet to make a decision about next year.
“I gotta talk to my family and stuff like that,” Gaskin said. “I’m not trying to leave here with a sour taste in my mouth like that. So that’s definitely going to factor in my decision.”
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns, including a 92-yard score in the second quarter.
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Vita Vea, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, was asked about his future but did not specify one way or the other in his response.
“This is definitely tough. It’s a tough game,” Vita said.
“We wanted to win for the seniors and all the guys that are leaving.”