GLENDALE, Ariz. — Anchored by the Pac-12’s best defensive player, Washington finished the regular season leading the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 92 yards per game on the ground.
Penn State matched that in one play in the second quarter of Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, springing Saquon Barkley loose for a 92-yard touchdown run, a Penn State record.
“The line,” Barkley said, “did a tremendous job. They did a tremendous job the whole game.”
With Lake-Lehman’s Connor McGovern manning the middle against a pair of enormous defensive tackles — including potential first-round NFL draft pick Vita Vea — the Nittany Lions’ offensive line paved the way for a Penn State bowl game record 545 yards.
McGovern, who had battled a knee injury toward the end of this, his true sophomore season, said the unit was as confident as it had ever been.
“We knew we could do it all week long,” McGovern said. “People have been doubting us for a long time. We wanted to (prove) everyone wrong, that we can be one of the best O-lines in the country.”
Indeed, the most likely scenario for a Huskies victory would have been them controlling the line of scrimmage and caving in Penn State’s offense right up the middle.
But McGovern, Will Fries, Steven Gonzalez, Brendan Mahon and the combo of Chasz Wright and Ryan Bates at right tackle put on a clinic on Barkley’s big run in particular. Fries and Gonzalez opened things on the left side. Mahon initially helped Wright chip the 6-foot-5, 340-pound Vea before making it to the second level along with McGovern to wipe out two more defenders, giving Barkley plenty of room.
“Split like the Red Sea,” said Barkley, who sped next to McGovern to hit the left sideline and burn his way to the end zone.
“Next thing I know, I see Saquon running off my hip and running down the sideline,” McGovern said. “As soon as he passed my hip, I knew no one could catch him.”
But it was more than one big play. Lions coach James Franklin credited the line for Penn State’s 13 first-down conversions, including on a final drive that burned more than six minutes off the clock, leaving Washington with not enough time for a tying score.
“I think it starts like it always does — up front,” Franklin said. “I thought for the most part we protected really well tonight.”
Franklin praised the positively of line coach Matt Limegrover, who noted that the interior line played its best against some of the stiffest competition this season — Vea and Michigan stalwart Maurice Hurst.
Limegrover said McGovern answered the bell.
“He wanted to show something, and today was a great step towards that,” Limegrover said. “It’s just been a maturation throughout his first two years. He’s a different player today then he was even at this time last year. And there’s still a whole lot more that he can do.”
Miller, Toney sit
Penn State got injured defensive end Ryan Buchholz back as a starter, but fellow defensive end Shareef Miller was out of the starting lineup for the first time all season, giving way to Kevin Givens.
Miller was benched for the entire first half and fellow Philadelphia pass rusher Shaka Toney didn’t play at all.
The ESPN broadcast reported that both players were serving a suspension, but Franklin wouldn’t address that after the game, saying only, “That was the rotation we had. That was the rotation we had for the game.”
Though Miller wouldn’t go into details, he talked like a man who had been serving a suspension in the locker room afterward.
“I don’t want to get too much into it,” said Miller, who recorded one of Penn State’s four sacks after getting on the field in the the third quarter. “It was like an animal being released out of the cage. Obviously it was tough sitting out the first half. I was pretty upset that I couldn’t help my teammates.”
Toney was suited up and on the sideline during the game but appeared to have packed up and left the locker room before reporters entered.
Legacy on hand
Solomon Enis wasn’t born yet when the Lions last played in the Fiesta Bowl. But the four-star wide receiver has certainly heard all about it.
His father, Curtis, was voted the game’s offensive MVP, scoring three touchdowns to lift Penn State over Texas 38-15 in the matchup at the end of the 1996 season. Two decades later, Solomon is still deciding whether to follow in dad’s footsteps with the Lions or stay out west to play in college.
Solomon tweeted that he was at Saturday’s game — he attends North Canyon High School in nearby Phoenix — and was rooting for the Lions.
He did not sign during the early period and will make his decision official during the traditional window, which opens Feb. 7.
Penn State won’t be back on the field until Sept. 1, hosting Appalachian State in the 2018 season opener. Not that things will be quiet for the Lions, even with most of the recruiting class signed, sealed and delivered.
One of the Lions’ top remaining targets, New Jersey defensive end Jayson Oweh, will choose between Penn State and Ohio State during the Under Armour All-American Game on Thursday.
The week after that, Penn State and the rest of the college football world will be able to officially hire a 10th assistant coach, which will be a running backs coach. New special teams coordinator Phil Galiano was originally slated to be the 10th assistant, but he was promoted early after Charles Huff followed Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State earlier this month.
The Blue-White Game is set for April 21.