GLENDALE, Ariz. — Each time Washington tried to fix its third down problems, Penn State found another opening.
The nation’s No. 5 defense struggled to find a solution Saturday in a 35-28 loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
UW’s defense, despite forcing two turnovers, allowed Penn State to go 13 of 17 on third down for a success rate of 76 percent.
“We’ll look at the tape, but I think a lot of it was (Penn State quarterback Trace) McSorley,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “He’s buying time, getting out of there. And when we did get a little pressure on him he stepped up nicely and took off and ran or bought time.
“I mean, that’s what I saw from the sideline. We’ll have to analyze it. But it’s nothing that we didn’t know going in. He’s a hard guy to handle. He’s a heck of a player.”
McSorley threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 12 times for 60 yards.
His mobility was an issue. McSorley was able to buy time and allow his receivers to find soft spots in the Huskies’ coverage.
A good number of his third-down conversions were over the middle. Both of McSorley’s touchdown passes also came on third down.
McSorley gave Penn State a 7-0 lead with 11:10 remaining in the first quarter. On third-and-8 from the Huskies’ 48, he threw a strike downfield to DeaSean Hamilton for a touchdown.
His second touchdown pass, a 24-yarder to Hamilton, gave the Nittany Lions a 35-21 lead with 5:59 to go in the third quarter.
McSorley finished 12 for 12 on third down alone.
“He stepped up, I stepped up, he throws it right over me,” Huskies redshirt senior linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “Maybe three or four of those third downs are on me. But as far as that, they just made plays. Defense, we understood that going in. We game-planned that.
“And we understood third down is a money down, you’ve got to get off the field.”
Penn State was among the best offenses in the nation on third down. The Nittany Lions were converting at a rate of 44.8 percent, which ranked 23rd nationally.
On the whole, the Huskies were also strong on third down during the regular season. They held teams to 34.2 percent but were exposed in a 30-22 loss against Stanford in early November.
The Cardinal went 10 of 18 on third down, hogged possession and kept the Huskies’ defense on the field.
Penn State followed a similar formula. The Nittany Lions held onto the ball for nearly 36 minutes and found ways to drag out possessions.
“You just gotta know that you still have a game to play,” Huskies junior safety JoJo McIntosh said about not letting Penn State’s success lead to frustration. “You don’t stop them, it is what it is. You gotta come out and play the next play.”
Petersen said even though the defense struggled on third, they still kept the Huskies in the game by forcing McSorley to throw two interceptions.
After Washington trimmed the lead to 35-28 with 6:47 to go in the fourth, Penn State tried piecing together a put-away drive.
The Nittany Lions picked up a pair of third-down conversions before they were stopped on third-and-2 from the Huskies’ 23 with 38 seconds to go.
Penn State tried going for it on fourth-and-1, only to be called for a false start penalty. Kicker Tyler Davis’ 45-yard field goal attempt went wide right and it gave the Huskies life with 34 seconds remaining.
UW’s final drive ended when receiver Dante Pettis tried to pitch it to a teammate only to fumble and give possession away to Penn State with five seconds to go.
“It’s frustrating. Everybody can feel it but you have to keep your head on straight,” redshirt sophomore defensive back Austin Joyner, a Marysville Pilchuck alum, said. “You gotta keep grinding. The game’s not over and it can change at any moment.
“With a couple stops you could be right back in the game and that’s what we showed toward the end … it’s just a huge part of the game.”