Penn State didn’t miss a beat without offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead in Saturday’s 35-28 Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, improving the programs record to an unparalleled 7-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, a mark not matched by any school in any bowl game.
The Nittany Lions’ offensive performance, especially in the first half, is likely the most impressive of the bowl season to-date, and not reflected in the final margin of victory.
The fact the game ended as only a seven-point win is a credit to Washington, who made several big plays to keep themselves in the game, and had the Penn State faithful fearing a case of déjà vu back to Columbus on October 28th.
While 545 total yards and 36 minutes in time of possession reflect the tour de force offensive performance led by McSorley, Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton, if Dante Pettis runs out of bounds on the second-to-last play, instead of attempting an ill-conceived lateral, Washington would have had a shot at a Hail Mary to send it to OT (or Chris Peterson trick play 2-point attempt for the win).
As impressive as the performance was, and it really was, James Franklin is sure to spend the offseason scrutinizing flaws in the Fiesta Bowl, as well as Penn State’s two close road losses.
Saquon Barkley Goes Out In Style
In what is nearly certain to be his final collegiate game, Barkley provided another electric performance racking up 175 total yards and 2 touchdowns, in what was comically described to be a lightened workload. In fact, it was lightened, as he did not return any kickoffs and only needed 18 carries (surprisingly his most since the Ohio State game) to gain 137 yards.
The reigning two-time B1G Offensive Player of the Year displayed the explosive speed that will make him a sure-fire top 10 NFL draft pick in a 92-yard second quarter touchdown run that stretched the lead to 28-7. The play epitomized the threat he poses every time he touches the ball. Once he broke through the line of scrimmage with little contact, there was absolutely no doubt he would blow by the safety and go the remaining 80-yards faster than anyone in the country.
Trace McSorley’s Prelude to a Heisman Campaign
Quarterback Trace McSorley was phenomenal in his Offensive MVP performance. While he could try and parlay it into an NFL future sooner rather than later, forgoing his senior season and declaring early for the 2018 NFL Draft, almost all signs point to his staying in school rather than entering the already crowded QB class.
This not only makes Penn State a B1G and College Football Playoff contender next year, but McSorley a Heisman candidate, with a style in the mold of this year’s winner Baker Mayfield. His Fiesta Bowl was impressive from start to finish with the way he hit DaeSean Hamilton perfectly in stride for the opening TD to his pocket presence and accuracy in repeatedly converting second half third-downs.
The Penn State QB put on a show Saturday afternoon completing 32 of 41 (78%) passes for 341 yards, with 2 TD’s and 2 INT’s. When his 60 rushing yards are factored in, he accounted for over 400 yards of offense versus a heralded Washington defense coming in. These were not numbers racked up against the likes of Akron, Rutgers or Nebraska. This was a prime opponent on a big stage. When added to his resume of 4-touchdown performances in the 2016 B1G Championship win versus Wisconsin and 2017 Rose Bowl versus USC, McSorley is earning a reputation as a stud who rises to the occasion.
Penn State Pass Rush
While the offense stole the show, the defense was crucial in allowing the Nittany Lions to build their 28-14 halftime lead, which resulted in only needing 7 2ND half points for the win. The pass rush really excelled, sacking Huskies QB Jake Browning four times, holding the 2016 Pac-12 Player of the Year to just 175 yards and 1 TD. Browning never seemed comfortable in the pocket, especially to start the game, allowing Penn State to jump to a 14-0 lead (which could have easily been 21, but for a great INT by UW DB Byron Murphy in the back of the Husky end zone) before Washington even got a first down. The effect of the pass rush was felt all the way through Washington’s final drive. After a missed field goal, which was only attempted after a PSU false start on then 4TH and 1, Washington had the momentum and a chance to tie a game they had no business being within reach of. Rather than starting a last minute drive with any rhythm, Browning was under pressure right away, resulting in desperate heaves to avoid sacks rather than high percentage throws for first downs.
Turnovers and Difficulty Holding Leads
There’s a lot less to be upset with than happy about for Penn State and their fans, but a theme that lingers over their only two losses almost reared its head again in yesterday’s Fiesta Bowl – blown leads.
Unlike the two CFP teams from the SEC, Alabama and Georgia, the number one seed Clemson, or the committee’s first team out Ohio State, Penn State didn’t have any bad losses in terms of margin or a weak opponent. In a sense, they were closer to an undefeated season than anyone but Oklahoma or Wisconsin.
They had a fourth quarter lead in both their losses in consecutive weeks at Ohio State and Michigan State. The former was devastating in how thoroughly they dominated the favored Buckeyes to only see the defense yield 3 TD’s in the last eleven and a half minutes. The latter was a somewhat flukey affair in which a three and a half hour weather delay forced the teams to wait around, for Penn State in an unfamiliar locker room, just waiting on the call to resume. Even then, PSU took a lead into the fourth quarter only to lose by a field goal as time expired.
When Washington opened the second half with an impressive TD drive to cut the lead to 7, and again when McSorley was intercepted on a deflected ball in the red zone early in the fourth quarter, it seemed like this could be another instance of Penn State failing to put away an opponent. Ultimately, the defense was up to the challenge of holding the lead despite a minus-3 turnover margin until Washington’s desperation lateral in the final seconds. However, when you’re moving the ball as well as the Nittany Lions were, and generating constant pressure on the opposing quarterback, it would be nice to not have to sweat out the final 45 seconds of a win.
What it Means for 2018:
Returning to the topic of how close Penn State was to being undefeated this year, they did so facing the toughest possible B1G schedule where they had to face Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State, all on the road. They didn’t have the benefit of hosting their toughest opponents, other than Michigan, who was nowhere near as good as their ranking without Wilton Speight when Penn State blew them out in October. That changes in 2018, as they face their two formidable B1G West crossovers, Wisconsin and Iowa at home, and the only road game versus a bowl team is against Michigan (they had 4 such this year).
It’s not entirely rosy, as they will be without three key offensive skill position players in Barkley, Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, and defensively lose their top 4 tacklers in linebackers Brandon Smith and Jason Cabinda, and safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. Given the recruiting classes and on-field product of the last few years, it would be naïve to expect a serious falloff. Franklin has taken this program to the level of repeat-and-replace instead of any type of rebuild with a down year of development. With the schedule tilt and abundance of talent, they could easily be next year’s version of Oklahoma led by a star senior quarterback to the College Football Playoff.