Lions save best of ’17 season for last

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There’s sure something about the Fiesta Bowl that agrees with the Nittany Lions.

Penn State kept its perfect record in the desert intact at 7-0 by starting strong and holding off Washington, 35-28, Saturday in a well-played and entertaining showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium.

In capping a second-straight 11-win season, the Lions successfully addressed a trend that surfaced in their past two bowl games and carried over to the 2017 regular season.

Unlike the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia and last year’s Rose Bowl shootout with Southern Cal, the Lions started quickly and built a 28-7 lead.

“That Rose Bowl sat bad for us,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “I feel very good about the way we played today.”

And unlike the two blotches on the road at Ohio State and Michigan State that stained an otherwise terrific season, Penn State showed a better finisher’s mentality in recording its best program win since that magical night in Happy Valley last October when No. 2 Ohio State came calling.

“We wanted to come out firing,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “You saw the energy we played with from the jump.”

There were so many positive storylines that the great Saquon Barkley and his 92-yard touchdown that staked the Lions to their three-touchdown lead in what was certainly his final game as a Nittany Lion was almost overshadowed.

Trace McSorley was once again incredible, his 402 yards of total offense and his third-down accuracy (12-for-12) putting him on a short list of 2018 Heisman Trophy contenders.

DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson, with a combined 11 catches for 176 yards, played like the best duo on any team in the country.

In his first game since replacing Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator, Ricky Rahne was mighty impressive, spreading the field, mixing the run and pass, spelling Barkley for Miles Sanders at the right times and, save too many shovel passes, calling a terrific game.

The humble Rahne deflected the credit, saying the showing was “our stamp, not my stamp.”

And they say the band doesn’t play for the offensive line? On this night, it did as the unit that has had trouble creating space between the tackles saved its best game for last, bludgeoning the nation’s top rushing defense for 203 yards on the ground and 545 yards of total offense.

“As an offense, that’s kind of what you want it to be,” senior offensive tackle Brendan Mahon said.

Dating back to the Rose Bowl, the Lions squandered second-half leads in their last three losses. That served as added motivation in the fourth quarter Saturday.

“Those last six minutes of the game were a microcosm of how we wanted to come into this game and our mentality,” offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, who returns four of five starters, said.

“Besides me jumping offsides (on fourth-and-1 in the last minute when a first down would have ended the game), we put it on our terms,” Mahon said, forcing a smile. “We ran time off the clock and put the game in our hands.”

Penn State controlled all but 4:36 of the fourth quarter.

“That’s definitely been a huge focus to be able to run the four-minute drill,” tight end Mike Gesicki, who added six catches for 62 yards, said. “And to have our defense cap it out speaks volumes for the type of team we have.”

It was the ultimate in complementary football as the Penn State defense, though it gave up 28 points, finished off the Huskies and kept the Big Ten, pending Wisconsin’s matchup with Miami in the Orange Bowl, unbeaten in the bowl season.

The Lions used their extraordinary defensive depth, further taxed by a couple more suspensions, to wear down the Huskies and sack quarterback Jake Browning four times.

He had only been sacked 16 times all season.

“We really played good defense all night long except for a couple plays — the long (touchdown) run and the double-pass (that set up Washington’s first TD),” Pry said. “We have to be better there, but to close it out was gratifying.”

And so closes the fourth year of the James Franklin era, and it’s beyond obvious that the Nittany Lions are trending upward on his watch.

The pair of 7-6s he rolled in his first two years, which were decimated by offensive line issues resulting from the sanctions, have now been replaced by a 22-5 mark over the last two years.

While, certainly, there are holes to fill going forward — starting with Barkley’s imminent departure — Franklin’s dogged work on the recruiting trail points to the Lions not rebuilding but reloading.

As no less an authority as McSorley, in accepting the Fiesta Bowl trophy for offensive MVP said, “We will be back.”

Based on how he has led this team since he stepped on the field for an injured Christian Hackenberg 28 games ago, there is no reason to doubt him.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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