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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - It's the eve of the 47th annual PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, as ninth-ranked Penn State (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) prepares to meet No. 11 Washington (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) in its seventh appearance at a bowl destination that's proven both triumphant and historic across the years.
While the Nittany Lions and the Huskies have never met in the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State is making its first trip back to the event since 1997, when it captured a 38-15 win against Texas on New Year's Day. With a 6-0 all-time record in the Fiesta Bowl, perhaps no outing is more unforgettable than in 1987, when the Nittany Lions claimed their second national championship in program history with a 14-10 victory against Miami.
Although proudly in the past, Penn State head coach James Franklin noted the Nittany Lions haven't spent much time discussing Fiesta Bowl history, instead focusing on being present in the moment, preparing for the challenge ahead.
Arriving in the desert the day before Christmas Eve, the Nittany Lions did a typical Sunday walk through before kicking up the intensity for bowl practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
From feasting at Fogo de Chao to Topgolf and kickball, the Nittany Lions also had plenty of time to celebrate, with the fall semester finished, graduation complete, and even the early signing day period out of the way all before arriving in the Valley of the Sun.
"I've been very impressed with our players and staff," Franklin said. "We talk all the time about bowl games and about being present and enjoying the time they have, doing the different types of things like Topgolf and things like that. But when it's time to meet and practice and work hard, they have to be able to be mature enough to flip the switch back and forth, and our guys seem to handle it pretty well."
Turning toward Washington, as Franklin says, the Huskies have all the right ingredients to be successful at the highest level. Perhaps mirroring the Nittany Lions in many ways, Penn State will have one last opportunity to send its senior class off on a high note.
"I think obviously when you're playing these Pac-12 style offenses, you better keep playing for four quarters," Franklin said. "And you better have a finisher's mentality because I think University of Washington can put up big points and they've got explosive players and they've got a veteran quarterback."
With a pep rally scheduled for Friday afternoon, the Nittany Lions will be greeted by fans who have traveled across the country to see the 2017 in action one final time. Preparations are all but nearly complete, all that's left to do is take the field.
"These guys love to play football, so going out on the field, sometimes that's really what they're looking forward to," offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. "They want to go play ball and they love to be able to be with their teammates and play football and that's the thing that they love to do. I think that's a thing that's really overlooked on great teams, especially in college. The teams that love to play the most, those are the teams that are the best."
What to Watch For -
1. When asked about the Penn State defense, Washington head coach Chris Petersen noted that a challenge in approaching the Nittany Lions, is the variety of talented individuals who can all make plays when called upon.
"You watch them play as a defense and there's not any one guy that has this huge name out there because they're all making tackles," Petersen said. "And that's what I think a good defense does. It's not any one or two guys that keeps showing up, it's like they're all getting a piece of this thing and I think that's one of the things that really makes a defense special, and I think they've got that."
Led by linebacker Jason Cabinda (85), Penn State has seven different Nittany Lions with at least 40 tackles on the year and 30 different individuals who have at least assisted on a stop in the back field this year. Ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense, Penn State is allowing opponents just 15.5 points per game.
2. Washington All-American defensive tackle Vita Vea said earlier this week that outside of consensus All-American running back Saquon Barkley, the one person the Huskies have to contain to stay in the is quarterback Trace McSorley. Owning the top two single-season passing touchdown totals in program history, McSorley enters the matchup with the second-longest active touchdown passing streak in FBS (27). He also became just the second individual in Big Ten history to record 25 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season, having registered nine games this year with both a rushing and a passing score.
"He's the engine to the offense," All-Pac-12 first team defensive back Taylor Rapp said. "Anytime we can play a dual-threat quarterback like that, it can be pretty frustrating, because like I was telling all the other guys, our DBs can cover down all the receivers, lock them down, do our jobs, but Trace can scramble outside of the pocket for a little bit and scramble for a first down. So that can be frustrating."
3. There's no doubting the impact that Barkley has on any given outing for the Nittany Lions and the Huskies are well aware of the strengths he brings. Barkley has toppled program records and ascended to the top of record books at a staggering pace, most recently recognized as the Paul Hornung Award winner as the most versatile player in the nation, among a host of other postseason accolades. Barkley heads into Saturday's matchup ranked second in the nation with 179.50 all-purpose yards per game as just the 24th individual in FBS since 2000 to total more than 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a single season.
"He does everything so well," Rapp said when asked about Barkley. "He's so versatile. He can catch the ball out of the backfield a lot. He can run the ball well inside the tackles and once he gets outside in space, it's so hard to tackle the guy, he makes people miss so much."
to Watch For - Washington
1. Among the things keeping Franklin up at night, one of the Huskies he listed was Washington's Dante Pettis.
"You're talking about a guy that owns the NCAA record for returns for touchdowns," Franklin said. "Nine is a lot. So that's scary."
Ranked tops in the nation in punt returns (20.4), the All-American earned first team All-Pac-12 honors at two positions this year, also averaging 11.6 yards per catch with 62 receptions on the year. Penn State has been successful in containing top returners on special teams this year though, something the Nittany Lions are confident about headed into the challenge.
"Our special teams unit, we love a challenge," Nick Scott said. "We take a lot of pride in facing guys who are dynamic in the return game and shutting them down. That's something we've done really well and hopefully that's something we can keep going. It takes a lot of hard work, confidence and just a mentality."
2. When listing what he sees in the Washington defense this week, Barkley said something along the lines of, "you all know about Vita Vea." While the Nittany Lions are averaging 41. 6 points per game on the year, Washington hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points in the last 26 games dating back to 2015. For Franklin though, Washington's defensive strengths are more than just its interior defensive tackles.
"You've got 6-5, 340 pounds, and 6-3, 320 pounds, and they play like it," Franklin said. "And I think they do a really good job of complementing those two interior d-tackles with what they do on their perimeter with their secondary. They do a great job of defeating blocks and fitting runs and playing what we call trap coverage where they'll trigger the corners and things like that, make it really difficult."
3. Washington running back Myles Gaskin was also among the Huskies keeping Franklin up at night. As only the third Husky in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in three seasons, Gaskin is a key explosive component in the Washington offense. Described as both speed and elusive by the Nittany Lions this week, Penn State isn't overlooking the junior second team All-Pac-12 honoree.
"He's a very good back," linebacker Jason Cabinda said when asked about Gaskin this week. "I think he runs hard. I think he has really good vision. He's able to get to the outside and kind of challenge the edge of the defense."
The Final Word -
When asked about preparing for a Washington team that's similar to the Nittany Lions with strengths in all phases of the game, Franklin noted that it all comes down to fundamentals.
"It's going to come down to blocking, tackling, protecting the football, not giving up big plays on defense, trying to create a few of them on offense, momentum-type plays," Franklin said. "And that's typically the case is playing good, sound football, not doing the things that are going to beat you."
For Franklin, it's those things that could beat you, that happen to creep up during bowl season, with the gap in between the regular season and gameday causing conditions for potential errors.
"I know our players and coaches have tremendous respect for Washington for what we've seen and what we've game planned," Franklin said. "At the end of the day it's going to come down to the team that plays the hardest and plays the smartest and finds a way to finish."