SEATTLE — If you take a shot at the Penn State secondary, you do so at your own risk.
The ninth-ranked Nittany Lions (10-2) have one of the most active secondaries in college football.
As a collective, Penn State’s defensive backs have allowed just 12 passing touchdowns. Individually, they’re the only team in America with three players in the Top 100 in passes defended.
Congratulations, Washington. This is the reward for reaching the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
“There not going to give you a chance to sit back there and hold the ball,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “It’s how they get after the quarterback. They get over three sacks a game, that’s a lot.
“They play tight coverage and they mix their coverages. So they’re getting after the quarterback, changing the picture and (covering) tight. It’s why they’re one of the better defenses in the country.”
PSU is seventh in scoring defense, allowing 15.5 points per game. The Nittany Lions are also 20th in total defense and will be the third Top 20 defense the No. 11 Huskies (10-2) have faced this season. Penn State is 44th against the pass and is allowing around 210 yards per game. But the secondary also excels in other areas.
They’re among the best in America at either breaking up passes or defending them.
Senior cornerback Christian Campbell leads the Nittany Lions with 13 defended passes and 12 breakups. He’s partnered up with redshirt junior cornerback Amani Oruwariye, and senior cornerback Grant Haley.
Campbell is 37th in passes defended, Oruwariye is 57th and Haley is 72nd.
“They throw a lot of different looks at you,” Huskies quarterback Jake Browning said. “Usually when you play a team that throws a lot of stuff at you, they’ll screw some things up. For the most part, on film, they’re not really messing anything up. … They’re making plays and never out of position.”
UW’s passing offense has struggled to replicate what it achieved last season. A year ago, the Huskies led the nation in passing touchdowns with 47.
The Huskies have just 18 scores through the air this season. Petersen told reporters in November that UW is facing tough defenses and Browning’s dealt with personnel changes.
Many of those factors are still in play and some are amplified.
Senior receiver Dante Pettis, the team’s leading receiver, is healthy after picking up an injury in a 41-14 win over Washington State in The Apple Cup. Freshman tight end Hunter Bryant, who was surging within the offense, could play in the Fiesta Bowl after recovering from a knee injury.
Browning will also have a new offensive coordinator for the bowl game. Jonathan Smith left UW to become the head coach at his alma mater, Oregon State.
Petersen said assistants Matt Lubick and Scott Huff will call plays against Penn St. Lubick, the receivers coach, was the team’s co-offensive coordinator this season. He also was Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2016.
As for Huff, the offensive-line coach, he is also the team’s run game coordinator.
“That’s different and different in an exciting way,” Petersen said. “It challenges guys to get out of their comfort zone because we’ve been into such a good rhythm … now everyone’s had to adjust.”
UW has faced some of the nation’s top-ranked pass defenses before. WSU, ranked ninth, held UW to 93 passing yards. No. 39 UCLA kept Browning and Co. in check with 109 passing yards and an interception.
Washington used an overpowering running game to earn blowout wins against both UCLA and WSU. That could be a problem given Penn State has the No. 17 run defense in college football.
“They play different coverages almost every snap,” sophomore wide receiver Aaron Fuller said. “Trying to trick you into doing stuff that you thought was open at first.
“You have to read the coverages and go from there.”