Pairing a dynamic running back with an accurate quarterback and a tough defense is how Washington reached a New Year’s Six bowl game.
The same can also be said for Penn State. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Huskies (10-2) and the Nittany Lions (10-2) will play each other Dec. 30 in the Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Penn State jumped out to a 7-0 start and was in contention to reach the College Football Playoff. That all changed when the Nittany Lions lost two straight against Ohio State and Michigan State by a combined margin of four points.
UW has faced several challenges this season. Yet with the Huskies and Nittany Lions being so similar, this could be unlike anything UW has faced all year.
“I haven’t watched a ton of them but obviously saw them against (USC) last year put up a lot of points,” Huskies quarterback Jake Browning said. “We’d see games when we’re waiting in the hotel for our 10 p.m. starts and all that. Just kind of watched as a fan but we’ll watch film on them pretty soon.”
Any discussion about Penn State starts with its star junior running back Saquon Barkley, who is projected by USA Today as a first-round NFL Draft pick.
Barkley has 1,134 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns and has 47 catches for 594 yards plus three touchdowns. His numbers are somewhat similar to UW’s Myles Gaskin, who has 1,282 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns to go with 18 receptions with three touchdowns.
At 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, Barkley has the frame and size needed to deliver a serious blow while maintaining the quickness capable of creating a big play.
“I’ve already watched a little film. Saquon, he’s a playmaker,” Huskies linebacker Keishawn Bierria said of Barkley. “That’s what he does. He’s also a great running back. A guy you can run it to on any down. Give him the ball and he’s going to make something happen.”
Even for all he’s accomplished, Barkley faced some questions near the end of the season.
Those concerns began in the wake of the Nittany Lions’ two losses. Barkley ran 21 times for 44 yards against the Buckeyes. A week later, he was held to 14 carries and 63 yards against the Spartans.
Barkley had 14 carries for 35 yards against Rutgers but came away with two touchdowns. He’s since ran for five touchdowns in the last two games.
Penn State, which is seventh in scoring offense, is more than a one-man show.
Quarterback Trace McSorley is among the nation’s most accurate passers. He’s completed 65.3 percent of his throws, which ranks 14th nationally.
Browning, who is No. 3 in accuracy at 68.8 percent, has 2,544 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
McSorley, who has thrown for 3,228 yards and 26 touchdowns, can also buy time in the pocket. He has the mobility to extend plays and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 132 carries for 431 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Another hallmark of Penn State’s offense is using all of its options.
The Nittany Lions have five players with more than 400 receiving yards. Senior receiver DaeSean Hamilton leads Penn State with 48 receptions and 747 yards plus seven touchdowns.
Penn State also has targets with size. Junior receiver Juwan Johnson is 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds while senior tight end Mike Gesicki stands at 6-6 and 250 pounds. They’re also the team’s second-and third-leading receivers.
If there’s a weakness with Penn State, it could be the offensive line. The Nittany Lions have allowed 28 sacks which is tied for 85th nationally.
“They like to move the ball,” Bierria said. “They like to get the QB outside the pocket and make some plays on the open side of the field. Pretty much, they stick to their regular game plan.”
Penn State coach James Franklin has done more than built a program with a sound offense. He’s also constructed one of America’s best defenses.
Ranked 20th in total defense, the Nittany Lions are 17th against the run and 43rd against the pass.
The unit’s greatest strength is limiting points. Penn State is seventh in scoring defense, giving up 15.5 points per game.
UW, by comparison, is the nation’s No. 5 defense. The Huskies are the No. 1 rushing defense in America and 19th defending the pass.
Also, the Huskies are the No. 6 scoring defense and are allowing 14.5 points per game.
“Their offense, obviously, with Saquon Barkley is really, really good,” Huskies linebacker Tevis Barlett said. “They’re one of the better teams in the Big Ten. Both offensively and defensively, they’re going to present a good challenge for us.”