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Seniors Cap Careers on Top

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GLENDALE, Ariz. - With Washington in desperation mode, the outstretched hands of senior linebacker Brandon Smith snatched up a Husky fumble to clinch the game. It was perhaps a perfect ending.

In mid-November, when reflecting on his decision to turn down Ivy league scholarship offers to walk on and pursue his dream to play at Penn State, it was Smith who said ultimately, it came down to simply having faith and going for it.

For more than just Smith, much of the narrative surrounding the 2017 Penn State senior class has been all about belief - and going for it.

"I think this team is a team that believes in themselves," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "Starting last year, once we kind of got on a roll, this team believes they're going to win every single game they play against every single opponent. You look at our season, there were some ups and downs and twists and turns and adversity, but these guys never stopped believing in one another." 

Through unpredictable moments along the way, when guided by its steady senior class, there has been no shortage of the get up and go for it mindset when a challenge is presented.

"This just means just getting Penn State back where we were, back where we're supposed to be," senior safety Marcus Allen said reflecting on the win. "We had a chip on our shoulder coming into this game."

It's a chip that's been there for a while, since the day most of these Nittany Lions committed to Penn State, extending on through the disappointment they saw in the eyes of their seniors around this time last year. From a macro to micro level, it's turning 7-6 records into back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time since 2008-09, and defeating a Washington team that entered the 47th annual PlayStation Fiesta Bowl with significant hype in all three phases of the game.

Most of that's in the past though, and Saturday, in its winningest bowl game in program history, Penn State extended its streak, adding another chapter to its proud Fiesta Bowl history with a 35-28 win against Washington.

Led by a seemingly surgical performance from quarterback Trace McSorley, it was the Nittany Lions who were executing in all three phases of the game in their 2017 curtain call.

"I think as a team, you saw the final product today," senior tight end Mike Gesicki said. "We were able to grow all season long, we had great bowl prep and today, from the offensive line to the defensive line, everybody on the defensive side and everybody on the offensive side, we did a great job and we were able to capitalize on every opportunity."

McSorley shattered the Penn State bowl record for career passing yards, bolstering his total with 402 yards of total offense (342 passing, 60 rushing) to become the first Nittany Lion in program history to surpass 400 yards of total offense in a game twice in his career.

He twice found senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton for a pair of touchdown passes, his second, for 24-yards, coming at a critical moment in the third quarter to send Penn State ahead 35-21.

"Yeah, it was really, really important, because momentum was starting to swing there," Franklin said.

The key to his stunning success came on third down, as he went 12-for-12 for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Producing 11 first downs, eight of his third down passes went for at least 11 yards or more.

McSorley would hardly take credit postgame though.

"Our offensive line did a tremendous job the whole game but really on third down," McSorley said. "They had a different sense of urgency to themselves on the third downs. And then you've got guys like Ham [DaeSean Hamilton] and Saquon, they did a great job separating versus man. We knew that was going to be a challenge this week that they were going to come up try to press us at the line and not give us a lot air, suffocate the air out of the zone. And we'd have to win against man and be accurate with the ball. And that's something our receivers did a great job getting open and making plays on third down."

For offensive lineman Ryan Bates, getting better on third down started as early as the offseason.

"This whole offseason, that was a big emphasis compared to last year because last year that was one of the things we struggled with," Bates said. "It showed today on the field and the whole season really, how much we worked on it."

Headed into the game, Washington hadn't allowed a team to score more than 30 points in a span of 26 games, armed with the nation's No. 1 ranked rushing defense.

"The whole week we heard how big their defensive line was, how good a good defense it is, running game, only gave up 96 yards average," Barkley. "We got 92 on one play."

Just like fans have become accustom to this year, Barkley dazzled, ripping off a 92-yard touchdown run to tie for the longest run in Penn State history, while also setting a Fiesta Bowl record for the longest run.

Defensively, Penn State stifled the Washington run game, keeping star running back Myles Gaskin to fewer than 100 yards on the ground.

"Coach [Brent] Pry reiterates it every week, playing harder, playing hungrier and being humble," senior corner back Grant Haley said. "We knew we had a challenge in their running attack and their quarterback, we did a lot of different things, we kept the pressure. I can't give enough credit to the d-line tonight, they played unbelievable."

The Nittany Lions also held All-American punt returner Dante Pettis in check.

"Big factor in the game was limiting the impact that their punt returner was going to have in the game," Franklin said. "It helps if you don't punt. We didn't punt very much. And then when we did I thought Blake [Gillikin] did a great job of banging the ball deep down in the corner with enough hang time that they had to fair catch it."

More than the stats, in years to come, it might be tough to remember Saturday's final score. Penn State fans won't have to look too far though to find the lasting legacy of a senior class that won't long be forgotten.

"Coming here in a time that wasn't so easy to commit to Penn State from an outsider's perspective and now we're leaving this program as a top 10 team, back-to-back 11-win seasons, a Big Ten championship ring and now a New Year's Six Fiesta Bowl ring, it's something we're going to cherish for a long time," Gesicki said. "I'm really happy to be able to go out with these guys."

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