Plenty of projections had Penn State facing off against Washington in the postseason. Just not in Arizona.
The Nittany Lions’ second straight 10-win regular season earned them a second straight berth in a prestigious New Year’s Six game. This time it will be the Fiesta Bowl against Washington, with the game scheduled for 4p.m. on Dec. 30 at the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Most expected the Lions and Huskies would play in the Cotton Bowl. But after Ohio State was edged out for a spot in the College Football Playoff, the selection committee instead sent the Buckeyes to face USC in the Cotton. That decision avoided three straight trips to the Fiesta for Ohio State and also a Penn State-USC rematch in the Fiesta.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “I think it’s always good for the players and the coaches from different staffs and different conferences to be able to get together. Looking forward to watching the tape and know it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us.”
In matching up the Lions and Huskies, the committee pits the two teams that were battling for the final playoff spot in 2016 against each other. Washington, which had only one loss, edged Penn State, which had two.
This time around, neither team was in the mix for a Playoff spot, as both the Lions and Huskies enter the postseason at 10-2, having missed out on their respective conference championship games.
Penn State stayed put from last week to finished No. 9 in the committee’s final rankings, jumping ahead of Miami but falling behind USC, which won the Pac-12. Washington checked in at No. 11.
Washington and Penn State will be meeting for just the third time, and the first since the Lions beat the Huskies 13-10 in the 1983 Aloha Bowl. Penn State also has a 21-7 victory in Seattle back in 1921.
The Huskies are a balanced team led by one of the country’s top coaches in Chris Petersen.
“I’m a huge fan of Chris Petersen personally and professionally,” Franklin said. “We both have some people that we’ve worked with that have tremendous respect for each other, got tremendous respect for him and what he’s been able to accomplish.”
Washington has one of the nation’s very best defenses, checking in at No. 5 in yards allowed and No. 6 in points allowed, one spot ahead of Penn State.
“There’s no better bowl, and I’ve been to a lot of them,” Petersen said. “When we heard today that we were coming back, there was a lot of jumping around and smiling faces, until we found out that it was James Franklin’s Penn State Nittany Lions. Then we said, ‘Uh-oh, be careful what you wish for.’ “
Petersen certainly would have fond memories of the game.
Back when he was the head coach at Boise State, Petersen’s Broncos pulled a stunning upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of 2006 season, winning 43-42 in overtime on a string of trick plays at the end.
Petersen has better talent now with the Huskies. On offense, Washington boasts a trio of elite skill players in quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and wideout Dante Pettis, who has more punt return touchdowns than anyone in the history of major college football.
“We do different things, depending on the team we’re seeing, try to put ourselves in a position to be very successful,” Petersen said. “We don’t pigeon-hole ourselves into one thing. But we’ll figure it out. I think that’s one of the reasons we kind of like what we do — we don’t just lock in and say, ‘This is what we do.’
“We do what we need to do to win the game or give our kids the best chance to win the game.”
No major bowl game has treated Penn State better than the Fiesta, where the Lions are 6-0, including their last national championship victory over Miami at the end of the 1986 season.
Penn State’s 1982 national title was also preceded by a 26-10 win over USC in the Fiesta Bowl to close out the1981 season. The Lions’ last trip to the game came in the 1996 season, a 38-15 win over Texas.
”Our phones are ringing. We’re excited,” Fiesta Bowl executive director Mike Nealy said. “I hope we have enough tickets for the fan bases that are going to be coming in.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse