SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Penn State football held its first full Fiesta Bowl practice on location this afternoon outside of a usual Sunday walk through. Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and several Nittany Lions from the offensive side of the ball kicked off the morning with a press conference event at the media hotel, marking the first media opportunity since Penn State touched down in Phoenix.
Now settled in, the focus this week is all about being present, staying in the moment and making the most of a final opportunity for the entire 2017 Nittany Lions to be together.
"One thing that I've been preaching to them is just to be present," Rahne said. "I think that in a bowl game atmosphere, you have to be where you are. That's what's going to make this experience great for everyone. This is all about being present in the moment and really focusing on what you're doing."
With activities packing the schedule and more down time than usual, enjoying every aspect of the trip, while also balancing responsibilities, is key for the Nittany Lions.
"When you're out at the different bowl events like when we go to TopGolf later on or the Brazilian steakhouse tonight, being able to enjoy that, and enjoy that with your teammates," quarterback Trace McSorley said. "A lot of these seniors will be moving on and you won't get this time back with them so being able to enjoy that, enjoy hanging out at the hotel in the PlayStation suit where guys are arguing over Madden, but when you get into meetings and you get into practice, it's being focused there, getting the most out of every single meeting and every single practice."
While making the most of each event is key, the end goal is something Penn State is keenly aware of as the days tick closer to game day.
"Ending the season on a sour note is not anything that we want to do so we just have to make sure that everyone is making sure we're putting our best foot forward and really investing in this game plan and investing in this game so we can go out there and give ourselves the opportunity to win and perform at our best level," wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. "It's going to mean a lot."
The stinging and perhaps familiar feeling of a bitter loss at the end of a successful season is something the Nittany Lions aren't overlooking, spending time this week reflecting on how a Fiesta Bowl win would be rightful and fitting end to the year, as well as a complete way to send out an impactful senior class.
"To be where we're at now with an opportunity to win the Fiesta Bowl and send these (seniors) out on a high note, having been the guys that came here when the sanctions just came out, to last year winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl - and that not working out for us," McSorley said. "No one in their right mind would have thought that would have been happening when they were coming here and now to be able to go out, on a high note, winning the Fiesta Bowl, is something that would complete those guys' legacy."
Looking at Washington
The Nittany Lions are well aware of the challenge the Huskies bring defensively, ranked No. 1 nationally in rushing defense led by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and second team All-American defensive lineman Vita Vea.
"I mean, their defensive front and those linemen, they're big guys," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "It's obviously going to be a challenge for us up front. They're definitely going to try to focus in and stop the run."
For consensus All-American running back Saquon Barkley, even with the challenge, Penn State will continue to approach every game the same, pouring over film and fine tuning the game plan this week. Barkley also spent time dissecting each of his runs from the regular season, looking for good things to try again in addition to areas to improve.
"It's a fun challenge," Barkley said. "The same way you approach that is the same way you approach every other game, especially in the Big Ten. I think in the Big Ten, we're well known for rush defense. Going against Ohio State and Michigan and Michigan State and those teams week in and week out, I think they helped us prepare for this moment."
Drawing on those Big Ten experience has been particularly helpful as Penn State prepares for Saturday.
"When you kind of look at some of the teams that we've faced and try to compare and see what might be similar, kind of one thing that jumps out to me would be Michigan with how they'll play some man-coverage and be aggressive on the outside and try to let the guys inside and use their abilities, beat one-on-one blocks and things like that," McSorley said. "I think Michigan with their scheme and then Ohio State with kind of their speed and ability in the back end, mixed with kind of their size and athleticism up front."
The Nittany Lions see just as much of a challenge in Washington secondary too, with both Gesicki and Hamilton noting both the corner backs and safeties are among the biggest Penn State has seen to date.
"They're one of the bigger units that we've seen all season, really athletic guys as well," Hamilton said. "They play great technique, they really didn't allow many explosive plays on them throughout the whole season - through the air at least. They're a really sound unit, they've been playing together for a really long time, they've got a lot of playmakers back there."
On the year, Washington has held its opponents without a pass longer than 40 yards or a rush of more than 35 yards. Having allowed just one scrimmage play of 40 or more yards this year, the mark stands for the fewest in FBS.
-Barkley on his conversation with Stanford running back Bryce Love regarding advice on attacking Washington.
"It wasn't really advice because me and him, our offensive styles are completely different. Even when you watch the game you can't really watch how they attack them because the personnel is different. We have completely different personnel. I just asked him how he attacked the defense. What was his mindset? Was it more speed? Was it more power? And if you watch the game, he uses a lot more speed and he had a really good game, had success against that defense."
McSorley on how he'll remember Saquon Barkley 20 years from now.
"In 20 years if someone asks me, the first thing that will come to mind is the type of player he is and the once in a generation talent he is, but the more you kind of sit back and think about it, he's an extremely high-character guy."
"It's been a pleasure to get to know him and be in the backfield with him over the last couple of years and I think that's something I'll be able to kind of cherish throughout the rest of my life. One, the tremendous player that he is, but then to be able to know him as a person, how he carries himself and being able to tell my kids one day, you're watching the highlights of Saquon Barkley at Penn State and them amazed by him - but you don't know he was one of the best guys I've ever been around in my life."
on getting back to familiarity with newly hired tight ends coach Tyler Bowen.
"T-bow [Tyler Bowen] was here when I was a freshman, he was a graduate assistant, so I have a relationship with him already and then obviously him coming out here, he just brings a different perspective and I think it's good for me. In my four years here he's my third tight ends coach so I think I've been able to pick different pieces from each of the coaches and develop my game because they're kind of critiquing me in different ways to help me get better."
Two Minutes with A.Q.
Former Penn State letterman and current starting center for the Arizona Cardinals, A.Q. Shipley stopped by practice to speak with the team. From what he sees in Barkley to his message to a few of the Nittany Lions, a snapshot of what he had to say.