GLENDALE, Ariz. — James Franklin has quickly brought Penn State back to national prominence. The Nittany Lions fell short of their College Football Playoff bid, but a trip to the desert for the Fiesta Bowl is big step.
No. 9 Penn State will face another 10-2 team that once had CFP aspirations when it meets No. 12 Washington in the Dec. 30 Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“We couldn’t be more excited. We’re blessed for this opportunity. A great way to end the season,” Franklin said Sunday. “You’re playing in a big time bowl game, a great venue, but you’re also having to face a challenging and difficult opponent.”
Penn State took one step toward distancing itself from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and becoming a national power again last season, earning a trip to the Rose Bowl in Franklin’s third season. The Nittany Lions lost a wild game to Southern California 52-49 and were on a path toward the CFP by reaching No. 2 in the AP Top 25 after winning their first seven games.
A one-point loss to Ohio State put playoff hopes in jeopardy and a three-point loss to Michigan State the following week all but ended their hopes.
Disappointing, but a chance to earn the program’s first win in a major bowl since 2006 is a pretty good consolation.
It won’t be easy.
The Huskies were in the CFP conversation after winning their first six games behind a stout defense and quarterback Jake Browning.
Washington was No. 5 in the AP poll and in good position to make a return trip to the playoff, but surprisingly lost 13-7 to unranked Arizona State and later lost to Stanford to lose any chance at the playoff.
The Huskies finished No. 11 in the final CFP rankings, setting up a marquee match-up at the Fiesta Bowl with the Nittany Lions.
“All the sudden we were like, ‘Uh oh, be careful what you wish for,’” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “This is what college football is all about. This is what you play all season for, to go to a bowl game like this and play another great, storied program.”
A few more things to look for when Penn State faces Washington in the Fiesta Bowl:
PSU loves Fiesta Bowl: Penn State is returning to the Fiesta Bowl where it claimed one of its greatest victories 31 years ago.
It was Jan. 2, 1987, when Penn State upset Miami, 14-10, to claim the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl. When he was asked if his players might have heard about that game played long before any of them were born, Franklin wasn't so sure.
“With this generation of kids, they know back to about when they were in ninth grade,” he said. “We have a tremendous history with the Fiesta Bowl (boasting a 6-0 overall record), but at the end of the day, it's going to be the 2017 Penn State football team against the 2017 Washington football team.
“History is more for the media and the fans to talk about. The coaches and players are just focused on what we see on tape.”
Huskies' D: Washington reached the playoffs last year behind its stout defense and the Huskies have been good on D again this year, particularly against the run.
Washington finished first nationally in the FBS against the run, allowing 92.3 yards per game and was fifth overall, allowing 277.4 total yards per game.
Saquon runs: The Huskies will have a stiff challenge in trying to stop Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
He was one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy early in the season and still could get an invite to New York for the announcement. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield appears to be the favorite, but Barkley had a superb junior season, rushing for 1,134 yards and 16 TDs.
Browning and Pettis: The Huskies’ duo of Browning and Dante Pettis will give Penn State plenty to handle when Washington has the ball.
Browning has thrown for 2,544 yards and 18 TDs with five interceptions this season and Pettis is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. Pettis is the NCAA’s all-time leader with nine punt returns for touchdowns — four this season — and was Washington’s leading receiver with 62 catches for seven more scores.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review contributed to this report.