Penn State Football

Early look at the Fiesta Bowl: How the Nittany Lions stack up with Washington

Barkley one of best around

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks Saquon Barkley.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks Saquon Barkley.

We’re still nearly three weeks away from the Fiesta Bowl — where No. 9 Penn State will take on No. 11 Washington at 4 p.m. Dec. 30 — but it’s never too early to look ahead.

There’ll still be plenty of preview coverage leading up to the game. But as an appetizer, here is a breakdown of how the Nittany Lions stack up with the 10-2 Huskies:

Penn State offense vs. Washington defense

▪  Nittany Lions: 41.6 points per game (seventh nationally), 453.3 yards per game (29th)

▪  Huskies: 14.5 points allowed per game (sixth), 277.4 yards allowed per game (fifth)

Fans might naturally believe, “Oh, the Pac-12 doesn’t play defense. Barkley torched USC’s defense last year. Blah, blah, blah.”

Throw out that line of thinking. This Washington unit is legit.

According to S&P+ analytical rankings, the Huskies are the fourth-best defense in the country.

Washington has faced three 3,000-yard quarterbacks this season: UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Cal’s Ross Bowers and Washington State’s Luke Falk. The Huskies held Rosen to a career-low 93 yards, kept Bowers to 80 yards and picked off Falk three times.

Washington’s linebacker havoc rating is third nationally. Havoc rating is defined by the percentage of plays resulting in either a tackle for loss, forced fumble or defended pass (intercepted or broke up). Major keys to that high rating are outside linebackers Tevin Bartlett and Ryan Bowman, who have combined for 20.5 tackles for loss this season.

And of course, defensive tackle Vita Vea is a monster. The Pac-12 defensive player of the year and a future first-round pick, Vea is a 340-pound force inside that has 3.5 sacks on the year and tallied seven quarterback hurries in the Huskies’ Apple Cup win over Washington State.

Penn State’s offensive linemen thought USC nosetackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was a handful in the Rose Bowl. Just wait until they see Vea.

That is really where it begins for the Nittany Lions: Can they neutralize Vea? If center Connor McGovern and guards Brendan Mahon and Steven Gonzalez effectively double-team the junior, open up the inside run and protect Trace McSorley, Penn State is in business.

The Nittany Lions have done it before against Michigan’s vaunted front-four, and Penn State’s attack is on a roll — averaging 52.3 points per game in the final three regular-season contests.

But doing it against Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska is different than pouring it on Washington.

Washington offense vs. Penn State defense

▪  Huskies: 36.9 points per game (17th), 411.7 yards per game (55th)

▪  Nittany Lions: 15.5 points allowed per game (seventh), 329.3 yards allowed per game (20th)

The lone name casual college football fans may know from Washington is quarterback Jake Browning. And that makes sense. The 6-foot-2 signal-caller was a returning Heisman Trophy candidate this year.

But Browning was pretty mediocre, statistically speaking, in 2017. A year removed from easily eclipsing 3,000 yards and 43 passing touchdowns, he has only 2,544 and 18 this go-round. He’s been efficient, completing 68.8 percent of his passes and tossing only five interceptions — but really, the underrated Husky offense hasn’t been driven by Browning.

Out in Seattle, it has been the Myles Gaskin show. The junior running back has 1,282 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns — most among Power 5 players. He also has 18 receptions for 228 yards and three scores.

Along with first-team All-Pac-12 wideout Dante Pettis (72 catches, 721 receiving yards, seven touchdowns), those are Washington’s big three. Pettis and Gaskin alone account for 46.2 percent of the Huskies’ yards and 55.8 percent of their touchdowns.

However, the Nittany Lions have a defense capable of countering the Huskies.

According to S&P+ analytics, the Nittany Lions are the No. 12 defense in the country. Washington’s opponents’ average defensive ranking was just below 70. The Huskies’ losses came against Arizona State (No. 100) and Stanford (No. 54), and the hardest test Washington faced all year was Fresno State (No. 15) in the third week of the season.

Long story short, the Huskies haven’t seen a defense like Penn State all year.

Special teams

Both field-goal units have been maligned. Washington kickers have missed 9 of 22 field goals, while Penn State’s Tyler Davis has hit 9 of 16 — and only 3 of 9 from 30 yards or longer.

The interesting battle will be Pettis against Penn State’s stout punt team. The Washington game-breaker has four punt return touchdowns this season while averaging 20.4 yards per attempt (best in the country). The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, allow only 4.29 yards per punt return (21st nationally, second in Big Ten).

Like Pettis, Barkley should be a factor. Washington has allowed returns on 61 of 78 kickoffs, providing plenty of chances for Barkley — the third-best return man among Power 5 players (28.4 yards per attempt).

Per S&P+ ratings, Penn State’s special teams unit ranks 86th nationally while Washington is No. 100.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9