Down 28-7, it was plain that Washington was not on the same level as Penn State. But after the Huskies rallied to have a shot to win the Fiesta Bowl Saturday afternoon, it was also plain that the Huskies were on a level commensurate with the heyday of Don James.
That may not satisfy some fans following a 35-28 defeat that was more definitive than the final score. But Washington’s 22-5 record over two seasons and consecutive appearances in the New Year’s round of bowls suggests that reaching Penn State’s level is not far away.
Looking behind them, the Huskies would seem a notch above their the Pac-12 contemporaries, who collectively went 1-8 in the bowl season mostly by margins greater than UW’s defeat, making the conference the Albania of Power 5 conferences.
But conference doldrums are a discussion for another day. Saturday, the two best players at University of Phoenix Stadium decisively determined the outcome, and they both were members of the 11-2 Nittany Lions.
RB Saquon Barkley and QB Trace McSorley were also the two best players UW faced this season. Together they overwhelmed the Huskies’ vaunted defense with opponent season highs in points and yards (545).
“Barkley was as good as advertised — a phenomenal athlete,” said Huskies coach Chris Petersen, whose UW bowl record fell to 1-3. “The guy we were concerned about was McSorley. When we got pressure on him, he just ran away from us. If we didn’t get pressure he stood in there and threw it well.
“He really showed up in the pass game. He didn’t do so much in the run game. We kinda slowed that down, but we didn’t slow down the pass game.”
The 5-11 McSorley did a fair impression of a prime-time Russell Wilson, completing 32 of 41 passes for 342 yards, including an incredible 13 for 13 on third down, leading to 11 first downs. He also had 60 yards on 12 carries. Add the 137 yards on 18 carries by Barkley, plus 38 yards on seven receptions, and the Huskies looked in the first half as if they had no clue where to turn against such premier talents.
“They were finding open holes and creases, and we couldn’t get them off the field,” said safety Ezekiel Turner. “The quarterback as a runner presents another threat.
“That was a great team.”
It might have been a tad better than the Alabama team that beat the Huskies 24-7 in the College Football Playoff semifinals a year ago in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. In the regular-season, the Nittany Lions lost to sixth-ranked Ohio State 39-38 and to 24th-ranked Michigan State (which dismembered Washington State Thursday in the Holiday Bowl) 27-24.
Some Big 10 Conference watchers have made the argument the Penn State at the end of the season was the league’s best. Whatever the case in the Midwest, Penn State was better Saturday, especially after Barkley’s 92-yard touchdown run in the second quarter for a 28-7 lead that made the Huskies appear to be moving underwater.
“A top 10 team gets out to that type of lead, it makes it very very difficult to catch up,” Petersen said. “We went in at the half knowing we hadn’t played well on either side of the ball.
“We were sporadic in the run game. QB Jake Browning was a little sporadic at times. Everybody was. Part of that was due to Penn State. We needed to have something more to happen to catch this really great team. We just didn’t get them off the field enough.”
The Huskies on offense were diminished during the season by the key injury losses of LT Trey Adams, WR Chico McClatcher and TE Hunter Bryant, and then in the Apple Cup had ankle injuries to WR Dante Pettis and RB Lavon Coleman.
Clearly, Pettis and Coleman were not healthy. Pettis had a single reception, a screen pass he turned into Washington’s second-biggest pass play, 26 yards, but could be seen limping. He fair caught two punts. Coleman had four runs for 11 yards and a single reception.
And Browning continued with some of his junior-year struggles. On the first drive of the second half, he had a perfect strike to WR Aaron Fuller for a 28-yard touchdown to close the deficit to 28-21. But in completing 18 of 28 passes for 175 yards, Browning’s response to the rush was erratic, and he missed numerous open receivers.
The falloff from his sophomore season, when he was aided greatly by one of the fastest players in UW history, WR John Ross, will be one of the storylines that will extend into his senior season, which most people around the program think will happen.
The Huskies can be heartened by a second-half uptick that was sufficient to give them the ball in the final minute, after Penn State missed a field goal, with a chance to tie or win the game. But after three incompletions from the Washington 28, Browning finally hit Fuller at midfield with a hook and lateral play.
Fuller flipped the ball to Pettis, who reached the PSU 34. But instead of stepping out of bounds to preserve time for one more scrimmage play, he lateraled the ball behind him to no one wearing purple.
“Had he got the ball over (a defender), I think there was a receiver there with a lot of space,” Petersen said. “We had Myles Gaskin coming up behind on the right side, but (Pettis) got pinned into the sideline.
“Dante probably did the right thing; he just couldn’t get himself around to throw back across his body left.”
The failure of the long-shot play was secondary to the fact that Penn State was superior across the board. But if the view elevates to the 30,000-foot level where the 0-12 season in 2008 can be seen, the fact that the Huskies were motoring downfield in the final seconds with a chance to win a New Year’s bowl in 2017 against a powerhouse program says a lot about the ground that has been covered.
As programs in the Pac-12 convulse, twitch and heave, Pertersen’s program hums along.