GLENDALE, Ariz. — No. 9 Penn State’s dismantling of what had been an elite Washington defense in the Fiesta Bowl came down to the Huskies’ inability to stop the Nittany Lions on third down with any regularity, and the play of Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley.
McSorley picked apart the 11th-ranked Huskies with his arm, passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran for 60 yards Saturday in the Penn State’s 35-28 victory.
Penn State converted 13 of 17 third downs in the game, nine of those on third-and-6 or longer. The 13 third-down conversions are the second-most in a Fiesta Bowl.
“A lot of it was McSorley. He was buying time, getting out of there. When we did get a little pressure on him he stepped up nicely and took off and ran or bought time,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “That’s what I saw from the sideline. Its nothing that we didn’t know going in. He’s a hard guy to handle.”
The Nittany Lions got first downs on a third-and-7 and a third-and-8 on their final drive of the game, one that ended in a missed field goal but left the Huskies with just 34 seconds and 72 yards to go for a tie.
The game was close, thanks in large part to Washington running back Myles Gaskin, whose two touchdown runs helped keep the Huskies from being blown out. But the Huskies had used all of their timeouts on Penn State’s last drive and ran out of time.
Gaskin ran 69 yards for a touchdown with 6:52 left in the game, cutting Penn State’s lead to 35-28 after Washington trailed by 21 points in the first half. But the Huskies’ repeated failure to get the Nittany Lions off the field on third down ultimately cost them a chance to win their first Fiesta Bowl title in their first-ever appearance in the game.
McSorley converted third down-and-longs with passes over the middle, three to wide receiver Juwan Johnson.
“They got us on those third downs,” defensive lineman Vita Vea said. “It’s definitely hard going out there and trying to get the ball back and stop them. They did a great job with that. We’ve got to tip our hats off to them.”
Washington linebacker Keishawn Bierria led his team with 11 total tackles and tried to absorb some blame for the third-down defense.
“Maybe three or four of the third downs are on me, but as far as that, they just made plays,” Bierria said. “We understood that going in, we game-planned that. Third downs are money downs, you’ve got to get off the field. Every time we have a problem with that, we lose games.”
Washington’s defense entered the game ranked fifth in the nation in yards allowed per game, 277.4. Only one other team in the country allowed fewer yards per play than Washington.
That average was 4.18 yards. The Nittany Lions gained 6.9 per play, the average helped by a 92-yard touchdown run by Saquon Barkley in the second quarter.
Penn State had 367 yards of offense at halftime, and punted only twice for the game. No opponent had scored more than 13 points in a first half against Washington all season. The Nittany Lions’ total of 28 at halftime included Barkley’s Fiesta Bowl-record touchdown run.
The Huskies were impressed with Barkley, who is widely viewed as a high NFL draft pick. But after the Fiesta Bowl, defensive players were left to explain why they couldn’t make stops.
Several said it was missed assignments on defense.
“If you can’t get off the field on third down then it’s going to be a hard game to win,” defensive back Austin Joyner said. “Converting as high as they did, it’s a huge challenge for our offense to keep putting up points. Very frustrating.”