The Nittany Lions capped off an impressive year by dominating the Washington Huskies in the Fiesta Bowl. They backed up last years’ Rose Bowl shootout with USC with a trip to the desert and another New Years Six Bowl Game.
The downside is that it’s the last time we’ll see several of their key players in a Penn State uniform. Mike Gesicki, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Jason Cabinda, DaeSean Hamilton, Tyler Davis, Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran, Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson all played major roles in Penn State’s resurgence and success over the past three years and they will be missed. But none will leave a more lasting memory than Saquon Barkley.
Barkley and 2018 Heisman Candidate QB Trace McSorley, reinvigorated the excitement around Penn State Football. This dynamic duo now hold many of the teams offensive records. Thankfully, we’ll have Trace for another year, but we’ll be relegated to watching Barkley on Sundays. I can promise this. Whichever team drafts him, they will be rewarded with a whole new fan base.
A trip to the Fiesta Bowl a few years ago was a dream, but after the Lions return to the college football elite last year, the Fiesta was merely a decent consolation prize. My, how expectations change.
After starting the year 7-0, and blowing out Michigan at home, the Lions headed into Columbus as #2 in the nation. They suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Buckeyes in the final two minutes of the game. They had another letdown the following week at Michigan State. Up 14-7 midway through the 2nd quarter, a 3-1/2 hour weather delay interrupted the momentum and the Spartans went on to pull off the upset, 27-24 on a last-second FG.
The Lions bounced back and went on a 3-game win streak coming into bowl season at #9 in the country. Their 10-2 record earned them an invitation to the 2017 Fiesta Bowl against #12, Washington. It’s not the Rose Bowl, but it is Big 10 vs PAC 12.
While I can’t speak much about other Bowls, the Fiesta certainly seems to be a rewarding trip for the players, with the Phoenix Metro area serving up plenty to see and do. The weather is usually perfect (and this year didn’t disappoint) and the resorts are top notch, with the Fairmont Princess serving as the home base for Penn State.
During the holidays, the Fairmont is decked out in lights and events, making it a destination for even locals.
The gameday venue of University of Phoenix Stadium is one of the better sites for bowl games as it serves as the home field for the Arizona Cardinals. The retractable roof allows for flexibility for fan comfort if conditions warrant, but why in the world was the roof closed on this perfect day?
With the combination of accommodations, weather, events and dramatic scenery it’s hard to imagine a better location.
Penn State entered the game with a 6-0 record in the Fiesta Bowl, but they were also coming off back-to-back Bowl losses. Never in their history have they lost three bowls in a row, so the pressure was on – but there would be plenty of fans to support them.
During the Pep Rally on Friday, it was estimated that there were over 7,000 people packed into the stands at Scottsdale Stadium. The Blue Band, Lionettes, Cheerleaders and the Lion got the crowd pumped before Franklin and the boys took the stage. Jimmy Kennedy and Bryant Johnson, a couple of Penn State and NFL alum who call the Valley home, also spoke to the crowd.
And of course, no tailgate is complete without the ever-present “Little Joe”. Oh, and Fireball!
We made our way into the stadium in time to catch the Blue Band as they took the field. Again, not the same as Beaver Stadium, but there’s just something special about seeing the band in a different venue.
As kickoff approached, you can see just how empty the upper decks were. Even a well-traveled Penn State team and a decent matchup can’t fill a non-championship Fiesta Bowl. Here you can see the light shining through the retractable roof on a day with temps in the mid-70s.
It didn’t take long for Penn State to show their explosiveness on offense. Their opening drive took just under four minutes and resulted in a 48-yard TD by DaeSean Hamilton.
On their next drive, Washington was the beneficiary of a somewhat controversial interception in the endzone, but the Lions defense held the Huskies to a 3-and-out. The offense responded with an 11-play TD drive capped off by a spinning Saquon Barkley 2-yard leap. Lions 14-0.
They would exchange touchdowns, making the score 21-7 in the 2nd quarter, before Barkley burst around the left side and outran the Huskies for a 92-yard TD run. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen defenders take bad angles on him. His speed is deceiving for his size. At this point, not even halfway through the second quarter, he’s already got two touchdowns even though they are rotating possessions. I’m thinking to myself how in the world does he not even get an invite to the Heisman?
Another turnover would give the Dogs a short field and allow the Huskies to cut the score to 28-14 at the half on a Myles Gaskin TD run. Gaskin, Washington’s highly touted RB, didn’t endear himself to Penn State fans when he mocked Barkley’s TD-celebration swim move.
The Huskies opened the 2nd half with an 80-yard TD drive, capped by yet another player mocking Barkley. This time, it was receiver Aaron Fuller. The Lions punched right back with their own 70-yard drive to make the score 35-21.
Gaskin again broke free for a 69-yard TD run, cutting the score to 35-28 with just under seven minutes to play. Even with that run, he didn’t crack the 100-yard mark.
Penn State held onto the ball and had a chance to run out the clock, but was forced to attempt a FG with just :34 remaining. Tyler Davis, having a let-down year after last year’s solid performance, missed wide right – giving Chris Petersen an opportunity to recreate some of the magic he created as the Boise State Head Coach.
This time, their hook and lateral was picked off by outgoing senior LB, Brandon Smith with just six ticks to go.
The Lions extend their flawless record in the Fiesta Bowl to 7-0. The best record by any team in any bowl game. With the B1G trying to rotate bowls to mix things up for the fans, it might be a while until we get to see the Lions in the Sun again.
The good news is, the Lions are back! A solid recruiting class again this year sets them up for future success. Let’s hope they continue to compete at a high level – on the field, in the classroom and most importantly, in life in general.
Is it September yet?