GLENDALE — Three turnovers, a missed field goal and a chance for the opponent to tie the game. It looked like Penn State, after dominating most of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, was setting up for heartbreak.
However, on the final play, the Nittany Lions forced a turnover that secured a 35-28 victory over Washington Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium. After the win, a humble James Franklin gave credit not only to the Huskies for “their program” and “their university” but also to the Fiesta Bowl for the experience.
“We were fortunate to get out with a win,” the Penn State coach said. “I’ve been doing this long enough. I know if you turn the ball over, you’re going to have a hard time winning and we were very fortunate to get away with a win with the amount of times we turned the ball over today.”
The program improved to 7-0 in Fiesta Bowl games.
Though the score looked close, the statistics suggested this wasn’t a great day to be a fan of the Huskies, especially in the first half. The Nittany Lions were able to move the ball at will throughout the game, especially in the first half as they put up 367 yards, and 545 yards total.
The success offensively came from not only star running back Saquon Barkley, who had nine rushes, 126 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, but from redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley. He dominated the Huskies secondary, completing 18 of 24 passes for 218 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the first half. McSorley finished the day 32 of 41, throwing for 342 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions to secure offensive MVP.
Franklin said that it was the third-down conversion rate that “swung it in our direction.” The Nittany Lions converted 13 off 17 overall to keep the offense rolling.
It was the defense, too, that showed up in the first half, allowing only 136 yards of total offense. When asked about the lackluster start, Washington quarterback Jake Browning said it was the “little things.” Huskies coach Chris Petersen pointed to a different reason.
“I thought it was the run game that was the problem,” Petersen said. “It takes a minute to get into the rhythm, the run game, but going three and out, three and out, that’s not going to help us. We’ve got to come out stronger and faster than that.”
That start for the Huskies wasn’t enough to keep them down, with the team picking from their bag of tricks and calling a receiver throw that resulted in Washington finding the red zone. Two plays later, the Huskies punched it in for a touchdown. Their second score came after a fumble from Penn State that gave Washington a short field to work with. Junior running back Myles Gaskin finished it off with a 16-yard touchdown, ending the scoring in the first half.
Those turnovers and one in the second half helped keep Washington in the game as it not only stole a possession away from the Nittany Lions, but off one of those turnovers, it scored off the short field.
In the second half, the Huskies came out swinging as they had their best drive up to that moment, going 80 yards on 13 plays, capped by a 28-yard touchdown pass from Browning to Aaron Fuller. During that drive, the Huskies used a no-huddle offense to their advantage.
Penn State however, answered with its own touchdown drive, going seven plays and 60 yards that ended with McSorley hitting Hamilton with an on-target touchdown pass from 24 yards out.
Ultimately, Penn State endured and picked up its first Fiesta Bowl win since 1997.
For Washington, it was another disappointing end to a strong season. For the Pac-12, the loss makes the conference 1-8 in bowl games and 0-4 against the Big Ten in those games.
Penn State improved the Big Ten to 6-0 in bowl games this season.
The game will likely finish Barkley’s career at Penn State. His only concern after the victory, however, was “living in the moment,” enjoying the win with his teammates and sending “the seniors off on a good note.”
That he did.