SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, Vita Vea wasn’t hard for James Franklin to find.
Washington’s massive defensive tackle has been on the mind of the Penn State coach and his team ever since Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl matchup was announced at the start of December.
Upon meeting him in person?
“I saw him the other night and had a conversation with him about, you know, probably makes sense for him just to declare to the NFL now,” Franklin joked Friday.
As it is, both the Nittany Lions and Huskies will have their top NFL prospects on the field Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium. Though neither Vea nor Penn State star Saquon Barkley, both juniors, have announced they’ll be turning pro after the game, both potential first-round picks intend to play, bucking a growing trend of top talents sitting out bowl games for precautionary reasons.
And both have the ability to decide who wins the Fiesta Bowl.
That’s an obvious conclusion to draw about Barkley, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting and ranks second in the country in all-purpose yards.
“I think Barkley is a unique, rare talent at that size and that speed. There’s no question,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “That’s why he’s going to be drafted where he’s going to be drafted.
“He’s a guy that can put his pads down. He kind of looks like a power back, but he’s really like a speed back. He’s most dangerous when you don’t contain him, and he gets on edges and he gets in the open field — he’s going to run away from everybody. That’s what makes him so different.”
It’s rare that a defensive tackle would be spoken of in a similar tone, but that’s what Washington has in Vea, who will try to blow up the Lions’ schemes and at least free up his linebackers to prevent Barkley from getting outside too often.
“He’s a tremendous player, tremendous player,” Franklin said. “You talk about stuff that you can’t coach — 6-5, 340 pounds.”
“That’s all coaching,” Petersen deadpanned.
“You can’t move him,” Franklin said. “You’re trying to get double teams and be able to get push up to the second level like everybody is. And what happens is, either he’s able to make the play at the line of scrimmage by really creating a stalemate and ditching the guy at the last second and making a tackle, or … (he) puts the linebackers in a great situation because those defensive linemen are not getting pushed into their face.”
As for Barkley, he sought out a little inside information for the matchup, chatting with Stanford running back Bryce Love when the two were together in Atlanta earlier this month for the college football awards show.
“I just asked him how he attacked the defense,” Barkley said of Love, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Washington this season. “What was his mindset? Was it more speed? Was it more power? And if you watch the game, he uses a lot more speed. And he had a really good game, had success against that defense.
“So I wouldn’t say it was advice, but he did give me some tips and some things to help me come into this game that I’ll definitely pass along to the other running backs.”
THREE AND OUT
Biggest challenge yet?
One of the men lining up across from Vea will be Lions center Connor McGovern, who has gone against some of the nation’s very best in his two years as a starter.
In last year’s Rose Bowl as a true freshman, it was USC’s Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Since shifting from right guard to center, McGovern has seen plenty more in Big Ten play, a group headlined by Michigan’s Maurice Hurst.
Senior guard Brendan Mahon has played next to McGovern for much of these past two seasons, and he believes the Lake-Lehman grad is up to the challenge.
“He’s really stepped into that role,” Mahon said. “And there’s a leadership role there at center. And he’s been doing a fantastic job. He puts so much time into it and studying film and in the weight room. He’s a strong kid. I’m really excited for him for the next two years here, and I know the sky’s the limit for him.”
The Lions’ line should get a boost with the expected return of Ryan Bates, who only played a handful of snaps in all of November after injuring his ankle against Ohio State at the end of October. Bates managed to get back on the field as a backup in the regular season finale against Maryland, albeit at right tackle instead of his usual spot on the left.
Prior to heading out west for the bowl game, Bates said he was still working on the right side as redshirt freshman Will Fries manned the left, as he did in Bates’ absence. The Lions also have Chasz Wright available to play right tackle.
Punt return showdown
The Lions don’t usually hold their breath when a Blake Gillikin punt is in the air. But this time, the guy waiting on the other end happens to be an NCAA record-holder.
Washington’s Dante Pettis holds the all-time major college football record with nine career punt-return touchdowns — four this season alone.
“I mean, his stats speak for themselves,” Gillikin said. “He’s a long strider. Once he gets going, it’s kind of hard to stop him. He’s really kind of shaky and shifty and everything like that.
“I’m going to have to play my best game of the year,” Gillikin said. “Same with our coverage team.”
One slight issue there. The recent dismissal of wideout Irvin Charles from the team won’t affect the offense, but it is an issue for that coverage unit. Charles, despite his penchant for getting flagged, was the Lions’ best gunner, even forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Indiana.
The key, then, is to not give Pettis a chance to run one back. Gillikin will be aiming for the sideline every chance he gets, something that should be easier to accomplish under the retractable roof of a climate-controlled stadium.
Good luck with that
Coaches’ spouses have plenty of motivational tools at their disposal. Franklin joked that his wife, Fumi, found a new one for this game.
“Last night at dinner, Coach Petersen was talking about wives and how he’s got great wives on his staff,” Franklin said. “And I was mentioning our situation is a little bit different. My wife, if you guys don’t know this, she went to Washington State. So she’s a Coug.
“So when we found out we were playing Washington in this game, she made it very clear to me — win this game or (she) and the kids are gone.”