Lions are returning to Fiesta Bowl

By Cory Giger

cgiger@altoonamirror.com

Penn State earned one of the great victories in college football history 30 years ago in the Fiesta Bowl against Miami, and the program is heading back there to take on an interesting and challenging opponent.

The Nittany Lions will play Washington in this year’s Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30 at 4 p.m. in Glendale, Ariz.

Penn State finished No. 9 in the final regular-season College Football Playoff rankings, while Washington is No. 11, and the cross-country teams both earned spots in the New Year’s Six game.

“You play in a New Year’s Six bowl game, you are going to play great opponents,” PSU coach James Franklin said Sunday.

This opponent is coached by Chris Petersen, one of the most successful head coaches in the country, and was one of the four teams that made it to the College Football Playoff last season. Washington lost to Alabama in a national semifinal.

“I’m a huge fan of Chris Petersen personally and professionally,” Franklin said.

Petersen came to Washington in 2014 after a great run at Boise State that included two undefeated seasons and two memorable Fiesta Bowl victories (2006 over Oklahoma in an instant classic and 2009 over TCU). He went 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State and is 37-16 with Washington.

“I can’t tell you how excited and honored we are to come back here,” Petersen said. “There’s no better bowl. I’ve been to a bunch of them.

“When we heard today that we were coming back,” Petersen added, “there was a lot of jumping around and smiling faces, until we found out that it was James Franklin’s Penn State Nittany Lions. Then we said, uh-oh, be careful what you wish for.”

Penn State will be making its first Fiesta Bowl appearance since 1997, when it beat Texas, 38-15. The Lions also were there in 1992, a 42-17 win over Tennessee.

The historic 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Miami saw PSU pull off a 14-10 upset for the program’s second national title. At the time, it was reported to be the highest-rated college football broadcast ever.

The Cotton Bowl appeared to be the most likely destination for PSU heading into Sunday. But after Ohio State was not selected for the College Football Playoff, it changed the selection dynamics.

The Buckeyes played in the past two Fiesta Bowls, so they were sent to the Cotton Bowl to take on USC.

Franklin said he was just wrapping up practice Sunday when he started receiving text messages from friends congratulating him on the Fiesta Bowl.

“We’re excited about the opportunity; now it’s get ready to play,” Franklin said.

The Lions will face a Washington team that lost twice during the regular season — 13-7 at Arizona State and 30-22 at Stanford.

The Huskies have an outstanding defense that leads the country in fewest yards rushing per game (92.3). They rank fifth in total defense, allowing just 277.4 yards per game, and sixth in scoring defense, giving up 14.5 points per game. Penn State is seventh in scoring defense (15.5).

“It’s a challenge,” Franklin said of playing against Washington’s defense. “I think those challenges also present opportunities to get better and really test yourself and see how good you are. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge.

“It’s funny because I read an article about Washington’s defense I thought was really good a couple of weeks ago that I forwarded to all of our coaches about how they play nickel and how they’ve had different guys playing at nickel position.”

Washington has a dynamic offense, as well, led by quarterback Jake Browning. The Huskies are 17th in scoring at 36.9 points per game, while PSU is seventh at 41.6.?Petersen said he hadn’t had time yet to find out much about Penn State.

“I’ve seen them on TV,” he said. “Everybody was talking about those guys competing for a national championship, those type of things.

“You’re talking about them being seventh in the country in scoring. The one thing I had heard about, maybe more in depth, before today was how good they are on defense and the type of defense they’re playing.”

SUBHD: News and notes

n Franklin said Ricky Rahne will call plays in the bowl game. Rahne was just promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator after the departure of Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State.

n Washington also just lost its offensive coordinator as Jonathan Smith was named head coach at Oregon State. Bush Hamdan is the new OC for the Huskies. When Franklin was offensive coordinator at Maryland in 2010, Hamdan was an offensive assistant.

n Franklin had a great line when asked if his current players appreciate the history of PSU in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. “I think with this generation of kids, they know back to about when they were in ninth grade,” he said.

n Franklin said he hasn’t studied other players in the Heisman Trophy race but did add this about his own star running back: “I can’t imagine there’s a better, more dynamic player in the country than Saquon Barkley.”

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