GLENDALE, Ariz. — The offensive numbers said Penn State should have won easily. Another number suggested it should have been another disheartening collapse.
Both Penn State and Washington entered Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin with the Nittany Lions at plus-14 and the Huskies at plus-11.
But Washington came up with all three takeaways in the game until the final play of significance, when Penn State recovered a desperation lateral. And it easily could have been five or six turnovers for the Lions, who put the ball on the ground twice on special teams and nearly had a shovel pass intercepted.
“I’ve been doing this long enough — I know if you turn the ball over, you’re going to have a hard time winning,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “And we were very fortunate to get away with a win with the amount of times we turned the ball over today.
“Something that we take a lot of pride in. We’ve been one of the better turnover-ratio teams in the country. And we just were a little sloppy with those things today.”
Franklin cited the offense’s incredible work on third down — the 13 conversions were second-most in Fiesta Bowl history — as what helped swing things in the Lions’ favor.
But not to be overlooked was the defense’s improved pass rush, which had struggled at times this season with injuries to Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz.
Unlike last year’s Rose Bowl, where the Lions only got to USC’s Sam Darnold once as he led a huge comeback, Penn State dropped Washington’s Jake Browning four times and pressure disrupted several more plays.
This came despite Shareef Miller being benched for the first half and Buchholz missing the second half with an apparent injury. Pass-rushing specialist Shaka Toney was also held out of the game.
The sacks came from all different players as Miller, Tyrell Chavis and true freshman Yetur Gross-Matos all had one apiece while Kevin Givens and Parker Cothren split another.
“We got after it,” Miller said. “It was tough being on the sideline (in the first half), but I just tried to tell guys what I was seeing and help them out.”
A tougher decision will be coming for backup quarterback Tommy Stevens, who would most likely have to wait another year to take the reins of the Lions offense with Trace McSorley expected back for his senior season.
Stevens is on track to earn his degree in the spring, which would allow him to play right away at a new school as a graduate transfer.
The redshirt sophomore from Indiana has given no indication he will go that route and said after Saturday’s game he hadn’t put much thought into it yet.
“Not sure,” Stevens said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Penn State coaches have tried as much as possible to keep Stevens involved, even designating his own special position, dubbed “Lion,” for him prior to the bowl game.
Against Washington, Stevens was on the field for 10 plays, lining up in the backfield and the slot with the Lions looking to get the ball in his hands.
The Huskies were well prepared for it, however, and Stevens found zero room to make plays, finishing with three catches for minus-1 yard.
Should Stevens return for the 2018 season, the Lions would likely follow the same plan for him, a la Michael Robinson’s do-it-all role in 2004 before finally taking over as starting quarterback as a senior the next year.
All in a year’s work
Since opening his career as Penn State coach 16-14 after the first month of the 2016 season, Franklin has now won 20 of his last 23 games. The three losses have come by a total of six points.
Under the terms of his contract extension from this past offseason, Franklin earned $4.9 million this season — $4.3 million in base pay, $300,000 for reaching a New Year’s Six bowl and a $300,000 retention bonus made payable on Dec. 31.
Franklin credited his coaching staff for the success on Saturday and said he likes the group he has been able to assemble even after Joe Moorhead and Charles Huff left for Mississippi State. He will be able to add a 10th assistant on Jan. 9 thanks to a new NCAA rule.
“So the next step for us is to go hire the best running backs coach in the country to come and complement the rest of the staff that we have, and I’m going to fight like hell to keep this staff together,” Franklin said.
Multi-millionaire or not, he still had to answer to his youngest daughter, Addy, who was sitting next to him when he gave that line, giving him a slap on the arm.
“I owe her a dollar because I cussed,” Franklin explained.
He can probably afford it.