Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl matchup between No. 9 Penn State football and No. 11 Washington will feature a clash between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
The unstoppable force — Penn State’s electric offense — is headlined by stars like Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, and Mike Gesicki. In the regular season, the unit averaged 41.6 points per game, a number that only six other teams topped throughout the year.
Meanwhile, the immovable object — Washington’s stingy defense — was quietly one of the best units in all of college football. The Huskies allowed 277.4 yards and 14.5 points per game, ranking 5th and 6th in the nation, respectively. Only Wisconsin, Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia rank above Washington in yards allowed this season.
The numbers that Washington’s defense has posted through are certainly impressive. Two of the defenses that had statistically better seasons than the Huskies will compete in the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Day and one of the others would have joined them if not for a loss in the conference title game.
Penn State’s offense is certainly ready for the challenge of facing a truly elite defense, but at the same time, the Nittany Lions are aware of what they’ll be up against.
“Washington has a great defense,” offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. “They do a nice job of playing fast. They’ve recruited some great players and then they’ve coached them very well. They have great fundamentals. They use their hands very well. They play physical. They play fast, so it’s a great opportunity for our guys to go against some future next-level players and test our skills against those type of guys.”
Star tailback Saquon Barkley will definitely have his hands full against Washington’s rush defense, which allowed an NCAA-best 92.3 yards per game during the regular season. The Coplay, PA native, however, is looking forward to the opportunity to play against a world-class defense, arguably one of the best groups he’s ever faced.
“[Facing Washington’s defense] is 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 like Ohio State and Michigan and Michigan State and those teams week in, week out, I think they helped us prepare for this moment.”
Senior tight end Mike Gesicki went as far as to compare Washington’s defense to that of the Buckeyes, who contained Barkley to 44 yards on 21 carries in the November meeting between the two. In addition to his normal preparation, Barkley picked the brain of Stanford RB and Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love about the Huskies’ run defense.
“I talked to Bryce Love out in Atlanta and see how he attacked [the Huskies]and continue to watch film and get a good feel for them,” he said. “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.
“He had a really good game, had success against that defense. He gave me some tips and some things to help me come into this game that I’ll definitely pass along to the other running backs.”
Senior wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton echoed Barkley’s intrigue with the Huskies’ defense while not getting too far away from focusing on how he and his team prepares and performs.
“They’re really basically a sound defense. They played together for a long time and they’ve got a lot of chemistry with one another and things like that,” he said. “So really just we just got to be on our Ps and Qs. We have to bring our “A” game, just like they have to bring theirs.”
Although they didn’t make the final four this year, the Huskies are just one year removed from a College Football Playoff berth that saw them take on Alabama in the semifinals. When facing a defense as good as Washington’s, the message, which Barkley echoed during the offensive press conference, is simple.
“When it comes to game time you just have to execute,” he said.
The Fiesta Bowl kicks off at 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon and will be played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ.