No. 9 Penn State burst to a 28-7 lead and held on for a 35-28 win over No. 11 Washington to take the Fiesta Bowl. The triumph clinched back-to-back 11-win seasons for Penn State for the first time since 2008-09 and moved the Nittany Lions to 7-0 all-time in the Fiesta Bowl, but it was hard to limit Saturday’s result strictly to what happened on the field.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 were both left out of the College Football Playoff this winter, and the leagues responded in completely opposite fashions. Penn State’s win lifted the Big Ten to 6-0 with two games still to go, while the Pac-12 completed its postseason with a dismal 1-8 mark, including losses in all four contests against the Big Ten. According to a tweet from ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura, the 1-8 record is the worst bowl season ever by a Power 5 conference.
The Nittany Lions accepted the ball to open the game and promptly moved 83 yards in eight plays, the final 48 on a Trace McSorley dime to DaeSean Hamilton. McSorley fired an interception in the end zone on Penn State’s next possession, but made up for that mistake by piloting an 11-play, 64-yard drive that culminated in a 2-yard Saquon Barkley rush to put the Lions up 14-0 just over a dozen minutes into the game.
Needing a score, Chris Petersen cracked open his book of trick plays. Jake Browning fired a backward pass to wide receiver Andre Baccellia, who then lofted the ball to defensive lineman Will Dissly for a 52-yard gain down to the Penn State 12. Browning put the Huskies on the board two plays later on a 1-yard keeper.
Though Washington (10-3) was back in the game, that didn’t last long. Penn State pushed the lead back to two scores with a 7-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, then broke it open when Barkley charged for a 92-yard touchdown run to give the Nittany Lions a 28-7 lead at the 9:01 mark of the second quarter.
The Huskies cut back into the deficit with help from Penn State, thanks to a fumbled exchange between McSorley and backup running back Miles Sanders at their own 33. Myles Gaskin pulled the Huskies back within 14 with a 13-yard scoring jaunt with 4:15 to play in the half. Washington then opened the second half with a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ended on a 28-yard toss from Browning to Aaron Fuller.
Their deficit shrunk to seven points for the first time since it was 7-0, Penn State responded with a 70-yard touchdown drive, culminating in Hamilton’s second touchdown catch of the game and the 212th total grab of his career, setting the Penn State career record. The Nittany Lions had a chance to push their advantage to three scores early in the fourth quarter, marching to the Washington 18, but McSorley’s 2nd-and-5 pass was tipped and intercepted.
Washington could not immediately capitalize but did on its next possession, as Gaskin burst free for a 69-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 35-28 with 6:52 to play. Penn State consumed all but 34 remaining seconds on its ensuing drive, setting up a 4th-and-1 that would have clinched the game. However, the Nittany Lions were flagged for a false start and, faced now with a 4th-and-6, Tyler Davis‘s 45-yard field goal sailed wide right, giving Washington the ball back at its own 28.
Armed with no timeouts, Washington attempted a hook-and-ladder play but, playing on the same field as the mythic 2007 Fiesta Bowl, no miracle was in order for Petersen’s team this time. Dante Pettis crossed midfield with the opportunity to go out of bounds and regroup for a Hail Mary, but his lateral attempt back toward the middle of the field was intercepted by Penn State’s Brandon Smith.
In (probably) the final game for college football’s best backfield tandem, McSorley and Barkley were as good as ever. McSorley completed 32-of-41 passes — including a perfect 12-of-12 on third down — for 342 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions while rushing 12 times for 60 yards, and Barkley rushed 18 times for 137 yards and two scores while catching seven passes for 38 yards. Hamilton added five grabs for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Facing a defense that ranked in the top five nearly across the board, Penn State gained 545 yards on 6.9 yards per play with 25 first downs and 13 third-down conversions on 17 tries.
Browning completed 18-of-28 passes for 175 yards and a score, while Gaskin led the Huskies with 14 carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns.