Penn State Football

Here’s what you should watch in the Penn State-Washington Fiesta Bowl

Coach Franklin talks about Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea

Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl matchup with Washington is one many have struggled to get a read on.

The Nittany Lions are consensus three-point favorites over the Huskies — but stacking the two up, that line could be just as easily flip-flopped.

Here are a few things worth watching:

Trace on track

Trace McSorley is on a roll.

In the past three games, Penn State’s quarterback has thrown for 776 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 68.9 percent of his passes.

All the attention this week from Washington’s defense has been on Barkley. But the Huskies know that McSorley keys the offense — and could ultimately be the difference in Saturday’s game.

“We can’t take our eyes off Trace McSorley,” Washington defensive back Taylor Rapp said. “He can hurt us both ways. We definitely have to contain Saquon, but we also have to contain the quarterback just as much.”

Tempting trick plays

Washington coach Chris Petersen has a propensity for trick plays.

Remember the Statue of Liberty stunner that won the 2007 Fiesta Bowl? That was Petersen’s Boise State squad.

Now, the Huskies don’t run as many trick plays as Petersen’s Broncos. Petersen actually said opposing coaches going back and looking at old trick plays is “wasted time and energy.”

Still, Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry is going to be ready.

“We’ve rolled back about 10 years and covered a bunch of different tricks and gimmicks and gadgets,” the Penn State defensive coordinator said. “And I’m sure we won’t see one of those. We’ll see something.”

Possibilities with Pettis

Pry dubbed Washington athlete Dante Pettis “a highly gifted guy” — and that’s putting it lightly.

Pettis is one of the most versatile players in college football, plain and simple. The consensus first-team All-American leads the country with 20.4 yards per punt return, owns the NCAA record with nine career punt return touchdowns and is Washington’s leading receiver with 62 catches, 721 yards and seven scores.

The Nittany Lion secondary should be on high alert. The junior averages 11.6 yards per reception.

But with only 18 catches in his last five games, the damage Pettis can cause fielding punts far outweighs his potential as a receiver.

“One of our biggest concerns going into this game is their punt return guy,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “You’re talking about a guy that owns the NCAA record for returns for touchdowns. Nine is a lot. So that’s scary.”

Scary indeed.

Bates makes the switch

Penn State offensive lineman Ryan Bates moved from left to right tackle for two series at Maryland in the regular-season finale.

While the game was well in hand, the snaps weren’t meaningless.

Bates will start at right tackle in the Fiesta Bowl as Will Fries settles in at left tackle.

It’s a two-fold move. First off, Fries — a redshirt freshman — has played relatively well at left tackle and could be Penn State’s future at the position. Secondly, right tackle is easier physically for Bates, who picked up a left leg injury at Ohio State earlier in the season.

“It’s not as much pressure as opposed to the left; a lot of pressure on the knee, the ankle,” Bates said at Penn State’s Dec. 15 media day. “For right now, I’ll be at right (tackle) because Will Fries has been doing really well at left (tackle). He’s been playing there the last five weeks, four weeks, ever since I got hurt he got moved back to the left.”

Fearsome front-four

Vita Vea — Washington defensive tackle and Pac-12 defensive player of the year — is a monster. The second-team All-American and projected first-round pick has 5.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, 3.5 sacks and a knack for disrupting opposing backfields.

But the 6-foot-5, 340-pounder isn’t alone on Washington’s defensive line.

Three-technique lineman Greg Gaines is worth paying attention to, as well. The second-team All-Pac-12 selection has five tackles for loss, three pass breakups and 2.5 sacks.

The Vea-Gaines combination could cause the Nittany Lions fits, especially considering their struggles running the football at times this season.

“I think the biggest difference for them is the defensive line,” Franklin said. “They kind of make it go for them.”

Added Barkley: “I’m pretty sure you guys are all aware of Vita Vea.”

The Nittany Lions certainly are.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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