The Washington Huskies didn’t make the College Football Playoff this season, but playing a legit top-10 team in the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl is a pretty good consolation prize. Penn State had a strong case for the CPF last season and was a fourth quarter collapse against Ohio State from likely being a Final Four team this season. Despite the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, whose arrival transformed Penn State from a good team to a great team, the Nittany Lions are still a short favorite of a couple points for this trip to Arizona. The total is in the mid-50s.
Washington went 10-2 straight up this season, but the Huskies played one of the softest schedules for a Power Five team. The non-conference featured Rutgers, Montana, and Fresno State. The Huskies avoided USC, got Washington State at home, and also missed out on Arizona and Khalil Tate. Washington was favored in every game and favored by double digits in 10 of them en route to a 7-5 ATS record. Penn State also went 10-2 straight up, but was one game better at 8-4 ATS. After the loss to Ohio State, Penn State didn’t cover again until blowing out Maryland in the finale.
Chris Petersen is one of the best head coaches in the country and his team will be ready to go for this one. It is fair to make a case that Penn State is the absolute best opponent for the Huskies on the 2017 calendar and it isn’t a tough argument to prove. Washington’s offense took a gigantic step back this season. Injuries didn’t help, but Jake Browning, who still completed 68.8 percent of his passes, only posted an 18/5 TD/INT ratio. He threw 43 touchdowns against nine picks last year and threw for 3,430 yards. Myles Gaskin crossed 1,000 yards again and had more yards per carry and more touchdowns, so the Huskies focused on the run, which made a lot of sense given their injuries and losses. Star wide receiver John Ross was lost to the NFL Draft. Third-leading receiver Chico McClatcher was lost early to a season-ending leg injury. Standout freshman tight end Hunter Bryant only caught 22 passes before he was lost to a season-ending injury. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith is a big loss going into this game. Smith took the head coaching job at Oregon State. That is a significant deal in this one. Bettors generally focus on the losses of head coaches, but coordinators are also very important.
The Huskies made up for their weakened offense by playing suffocating defense. The Huskies only allowed 4.2 yards per play, which was up with the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski had some players to replace, including top cornerback Kevin King and top tackler Budda Baker, but the Huskies were no worse for the wear. They allowed just 2.6 yards per carry, which should make for a fun chess match between the Huskies defense and superstar running back Saquon Barkley. The pass defense allowed a 63.8 percent completion rate, but allowed less than six yards per pass attempt. This is the third straight season that Washington has held the opposition to less than five yards per play.
The Penn State offense probably won’t look too different without Joe Moorhead, but that is a significant loss for this program going forward. Penn State averaged 6.6 yards per play this season and scored nearly 42 points per game. In James Franklin’s first two seasons in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions averaged 4.6 and 5.5 yards per play. Under Moorhead, who was hired before the 2016 season, Penn State had 6.5 and 6.6 yards per play. Life without him begins against a stalwart defense. Fortunately, Penn State has some dudes that can ball. Quarterback Trace McSorley was overshadowed by running back Saquon Barkley, but McSorley accounted for 37 total touchdowns with a 26/8 TD/INT ratio and 11 rushing scores. He completed 65 percent of his tosses with a talented cast of wide receivers in DaeSean Hamilton, Juwan Johnson, and tight end Mike Gesicki. Penn State had four guys with at least 47 receptions, including Barkley, who had 47 grabs for 594 yards and ran the ball 199 times for 1,134 yards. Barkley put up great numbers, but he had 21 carries for 44 yards against Ohio State and 14 carries for 63 yards against Michigan State. He ran for over 100 on Michigan, but had 69 on one run and 39 in his other 14 carries. He did struggle against better competition, which is a factor to consider in this game.
The Penn State defense was solid for the most part, allowing just 4.7 yards per play. Ohio State moved the ball really well in that huge game and the Nittany Lions struggled to stop Michigan State and Nebraska later in the season. Defensive coordinators Brent Pry and Tim Banks have a lot of time to plan for Washington, which should help, though it didn’t help in last year’s Rose Bowl thriller against USC, in which the Trojans ran up 575 yards. Maybe it just took James Franklin some time to build the program up after the losses of scholarships and the fallout from the Joe Paterno sanctions, but this was a 7-6 team in both 2014 and 2015. Things took a turn with the Joe Moorhead offense. This defense has been solid throughout, but it wasn’t enough in the first two seasons. The Nittany Lions didn’t play many good offenses this season, except for Ohio State, and didn’t show well in that game.
College Football Free Pick: Washington Huskies +2
The Huskies and Nittany Lions are both missing offensive coordinators, so the under is probably the best look in this game. It seems like a lot of Franklin’s success at Penn State can be tied to the Moorhead hire and the way that he utilized McSorley and Barkley. Perhaps things don’t change too much in this one game, but Washington went from having a slight coaching advantage to having a pretty big one at this point. Neither one of these teams played great schedules and neither team showed all that well in marquee games. With Washington’s coaching edge, though, the scale tips in that direction.