GLENDALE, Ariz. — Converting on third downs had been a sore spot at Penn State, so coach James Franklin made it a point of emphasis in spring ball and fall camp.
The Nittany Lions kept working at it during the season and kept getting better, peaking at the perfect time.
Trace McSorley threw for 342 yards and had both of his touchdown passes to DaeSean Hamilton on third-down plays, helping No. 9 Penn State outlast No. 12 Washington 35-28 in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.
“Our coaches did a fantastic job and the O line protected and the receivers made plays,” Franklin said. “We were very efficient. We executed.”
Penn State (11-2), No. 9 in the final College Football Rankings, had its way with Washington’s vaunted defense early, building a 28-7 lead by the second quarter. Washington (10-3) woke up from an offensive slumber with two touchdowns and pulled to 35-28 on Myles Gaskins’ 69-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
The Huskies’ inability to stop Penn State on third down kept them from getting any closer.
The Nittany Lions converted three third-down attempts on a final clock-winding drive and were 13 for 17 overall. Washington had a final shot with a desperation play of multiple laterals and passes, but Dante Pettis’ final lateral was intercepted after he passed up a chance to step out of bounds to set up one more play.
“I think a lot of it was McSorley,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “He’s buying time, getting out of there. And when we did get a little pressure on him, he stepped up nicely and took off and ran or bought time.”
Washington had the nation’s top run defense during the regular season, allowing 92 yards per game, but Saquon Barkley matched that on one run in the second quarter. Barkley had 137 of the Nittany Lions’ 203 yards rushing and two touchdowns in what could be his final game if he decides to turn pro.
The Huskies, No. 11 CFP, gave up a season-high 545 total yards.
“They had us on our heels most of the night,” Petersen said.
The Nittany Lions lost a chance at the CFP with consecutive losses to Ohio State and No. 24 Michigan State, but ended up in a familiar place: The Fiesta Bowl, where they had not lost in six previous trips.
Penn State raced toward No. 7 by going to the air early against the run-stingy Huskies.
McSorley picked Washington’s secondary apart, hitting nine receivers for 219 yards in the first half. He connected with DaeSean Hamilton on a 48-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive, and set up scoring runs of 2 yards by Barkley and 1 yard by Miles Sanders.
Barkley then did it all himself, bursting through the left side for a 92-yard touchdown run to put Penn State up 28-7.
The Nittany Lions had 367 yards by halftime against a defense that allowed 277.4 yards per game during the regular season.
“We came out flat in the first half,” Washington linebacker Tevis Bartlett said.
Washington was in the Fiesta Bowl for the first time, but Petersen had made a name for himself by trick-playing Boise State to a pair of Fiesta victories
Petersen reached into his trick-play bag to spark Washington from an early funk, calling a double pass that led to 52-yard gain to tight end Drew Sample. That set up Jake Browning’s 1-yard TD dive.
The Huskies turned a recovered fumble into a much-needed touchdown just before halftime, cutting Penn State’s lead to 28-14 on Gaskin’s 13-yard run.
Another big score came right after halftime: Browning 28 yards to Aaron Fuller.
But Penn State answered on another third down, when McSorley hit Hamilton on a 24-yard TD pass to put Penn State up 35-21.
“(Hamilton’s TD) was really, really important, because momentum was starting to swing there,” Franklin said.
BROWNING’S QUIET DAY
Browning has been one of the nation’s most prolific passers during his career, but found little room to operate against Penn State’s secondary. He missed on several throws and finished with 175 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-28 passing.
Penn State could wonder what might have been in the CFP, but a Fiesta Bowl is a nice way to close out the season.
Washington’s defense had its worst outing of the season at the worst possible time.
Barkley is a junior, but could decide to leave for the NFL. So is McSorley and the Nittany Lions should have most of their offensive line back.
Washington will lose two offensive line starters and receiver/punt returner Pettis to graduation, but gets back most of its defense. Browning, Gaskin and DL Vita Vea also are juniors, if they decide to stay in school.