James Franklin and Chris Petersen have been asked ad nauseam about it all week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, but it’s somewhat understandable: The similarities between the Nittany Lions and Huskies are striking.
Both have accurate quarterbacks, dynamic running backs, solid defenses and opportunistic special teams. Both are 10-2 overall and 7-2 in-conference, fell short of College Football Playoff expectations and find themselves playing in premier bowl games in back-to-back seasons.
But there is more to know about Washington. So we caught up with Ryan Clark — Huskies beat writer for the Tacoma News Tribune — for more insight on the Nittany Lions’ Fiesta Bowl opponent.
Q: In the offseason, Washington lost a few key pieces from that playoff team. What were your expectations entering the season? And what did you learn about this team as the season progressed?
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A: The expectations were getting back to the CFP. If not that, then getting to a New Year’s Six bowl game, and they were able to do that. Let’s face it. Penn State fans saw it. One off-week is bad in this current landscape; two is more or less a death blow. There were a bunch of players who said Wednesday that the biggest takeaway they had this year was losing to Arizona State. It let them know that they’re going to see everyone’s best. And they had a ton of injuries. They lost (2016 first-team All-Pac-12 lineman) Trey Adams, a star left tackle. They had to reconfigure the offensive line. They lost Jordan Miller, one of their star defensive backs, and they had already lost another defensive back earlier in the year. They were starting a redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore. They way they’ve had to make it work is with depth. Given where they were at, let’s face it, you’re a touchdown away from beating Arizona State and a touchdown and two-point conversion away from beating Stanford. That’s still a really good year to end up in the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State.
Q: What really stood out to you in Washington’s Apple Cup win over Washington State?
A: The dominance. The previous two games, you saw Washington look — not shaky — but the teams figured them out. Stanford had a receiver in JJ Arcega-Whiteside who caught five balls for 130 yards and at least three were on third down. That led to Stanford going 10 of 18 on third down. Stanford also hogged time of possession. Utah tried a similar system, but the horses you have at Stanford are different than what Utah has. Everything Washington State did — the different shifts defensively — didn’t work against that O-line. They had a hard time stopping the run. ... It was just a culmination of so many things. Washington’s defense didn’t give up a ton of big plays. And then with Myles Gaskin, when you rush for 192 yards and four touchdowns, that’s going to make a difference no matter who you play.
Q: How would you assess Jake Browning’s play? Coming off a year in which he put up these gaudy numbers, he’s still efficient.
A: It’s challenging because on one hand, he’s being responsible with the football. He’s completing 68.8 percent of passes, which is third nationally. He hasn’t thrown a ton of interceptions. If there’s a drawback with his decision-making, he’s held onto the ball a little bit too long. He took two sacks late in the game against Stanford, which really hurt their chances to rally. As far as the overall numbers, to go from 43 touchdown to 18, there are a couple reasons why. You lose a first-round receiver in John Ross; that’s going to change the dynamic. The other thing is — and we’ve heard Chris Petersen say it before — it’s the schemes they’re seeing. Teams are keying in on Browning. ... It’s a culmination of all those things.
Q: A lot of people talk about Browning, Gaskin and Dante Pettis. But who do you think is an unsung hero on this team?
A: I’ll give you two. On defense, it’s been (linebacker) Ben Burr-Kirven. His story has been one of the most fascinating all year. Washington had Azeem Victor, who was a preseason All-American coming off a leg injury. But he was suspended for the first game against Rutgers, and he’s been indefinitely suspended for a DUI arrest in mid-November. But Victor lost his starting to job to Burr-Kirven, who was a three-star prospect. Anyone could’ve had him. Washington developed him, and he’s one of the centerpieces of their defense. There have been guys who have said that’s their defensive MVP. Defensive backs, who we all know take speed seriously, they all admit that Burr-Kirven is the fastest guy on that defense. He was a track champion in high school coming out of California. On offense, I would say Andrew Kirkland. He’s played left guard and left tackle and has given them experience and security on the left side.
Q: Any prediction or inkling of how this game is going to go?
A: It’s just going to be close. I know that’s a, “Yeah, no duh,” statement. But there are so many similarities between the two with accurate quarterbacks, dynamic running backs, tough defenses. I’ll say someone by three or four, and as far as who, I have no earthly idea.