GLENDALE, Ariz. — For a moment, Ricky Rahne was alone in the middle of a still beaming locker room as cameras and microphones found his players after Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl.
For his first game as Penn State’s full-time offensive coordinator, Rahne merely managed to put together a gameplan that racked up the most yards in all 48 bowl games in Nittany Lions history.
That would be 545 yards against one of the nation’s top defenses. And, most importantly, a 35-28 win over Washington on Saturday that gave Penn State its second straight 11-win season.
Not that he was about to take the credit.
“It’s everyone. It’s everyone in this room,” Rahne said, pointing to Saquon Barkley (175 total yards, two touchdowns), Trace McSorley (402 total yards, two touchdowns) and naming every one of his fellow assistant coaches and grad assistants.
“Coach (James) Franklin lets us do our thing. And it works out.”
And how. The system first installed by Joe Moorhead two years ago didn’t skip a beat with Rahne directing the show from up in the booth at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“We made a decision and stayed internal,” Franklin said of the apparently smooth transition from Moorhead to Rahne, who had previously coached tight ends and quarterbacks. “And I thought our guys handled it really. Ricky Rahne, our offensive coordinator. Josh Gattis, our passing game coordinator. Matt Limegrover, run game. And obviously getting (new tight ends coach and former grad assistant) Tyler Bowen back. I thought those guys did a fantastic job.”
The players weren’t too shabby, either.
Barkley tied a program record with a 92-yard touchdown run — the longest in Fiesta Bowl history and the longest in the Lions’ bowl history — and put an exclamation point on what was likely his final game in a Penn State uniform.
Any NFL announcement, however, will have to come later.
“That decision, I’m not really focused on that,” said Barkley. “I’m just living in the moment and enjoying it. Cherishing this moment with the seniors, especially with guys like (DaeSean Hamilton, who caught two touchdowns). Those guys are so special and I’m so thankful to call those guys my brothers and my teammates.”
“He’s as good as advertised,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “An excellent player.”
McSorley shined brightest of all, becoming the second Penn State quarterback to top 300 yards passing in a bowl game, joining Christian Hackenberg.
But most impressive were his frankly unbelievable numbers on third down, where he finished 12-for-12 for 193 yards and two touchdowns while moving the sticks 10 times.
“We knew that was going to be a challenge this week, that they were going to come up try to press us at the line (on third down) and … suffocate the air out of the zone,” McSorley said. “And we’d have to win against man and be accurate with the ball. And that’s something our receivers did a great job getting open and making plays on third down.”
Nine different receivers caught passes in the win.
“That’s the beauty of this system,” Rahne said. “The ball goes where it’s supposed to go. You’re not necessarily trying to force it to anybody. That’s why Trace is so great in this system. He gets it there.”
No. 9 Penn State (11-2) needed every bit of it to hold off the 11th-ranked Huskies (10-3), who nearly rallied from a 21-point deficit at the end of regulation, conjuring up memories of last season’s Rose Bowl collapse against USC — not to mention this year’s gut-punch loss at Ohio State.
But with 6:52 remaining, McSorley managed to keep moving the chains, running the clock all the way down to 34 seconds. Tyler Davis ultimately missed a 45-yard field goal that would have iced the game, but Washington could only manage a hook-and-ladder play at the end.
The Huskies got the ball in the hands of top athlete Dante Pettis on the first lateral, but the wideout didn’t realize there was still time on the clock and tried to chuck one back himself to keep the play alive — throwing it right to linebacker Brandon Smith to end the game.
“Normally we try to keep the ball alive,” Pettis said. “I didn’t know there were still five seconds left, so I just tried to make a play. Looking back, knowing there were five seconds, I easily could have stepped out of bounds.”
One last bit of drama at the end of a season full of it.
“There were some ups and downs and twists and turns and adversity,” Franklin said. “But these guys never stopped believing in one another. And I think that confidence comes from how hard they’ve worked and how hard they prepared and how much they’ve sacrificed to get to this point. They believe in each other. The coaches believe in them in more ways than just football.
“And I think that’s what you see on the field. You watch us play — we play an exciting brand of football. The guys love playing together. The coaches love watching them play. It’s a party.”