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Penn State vs. Washington: Breaking down the matchups in the Fiesta Bowl

| Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, 9:24 p.m.

A breakdown of the matchups between Penn State and Washington in Saturday's Fiesta Bowl.

When Penn State has the ball

Offensive line vs. Defensive line

The Nittany Lions are hoping this is the game they show the nation, once and for all, they've become a good, formidable offensive line. We've heard that before. But if they play well, it might be time to listen.

The Huskies' two junior defensive tackles, 340-pound Vita Vea and 322-pound Greg Gaines, might be the best pair of run-stuffers the Nittany Lions have faced all season, including Ohio State's gifted interior linemen. Vea will draw a consistent double teams from center Connor McGovern and one of the guards, which will leave Gaines and gifted rush ends Benning Potoa'e and Ryan Bowman, and 298-pound Jaylen Johnson, plenty of one-on-one chances against the tackles.

“I think that's the biggest challenge,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think they're a lot like us in a lot of ways. They're really sound in what they do. They're not overly complicated, which I think, to be honest with you, that's what the best defenses do and the best offenses do. They get good at something and do it well.”

Penn State has played three defensive lines that somewhat compare to Washington's. It played well against Michigan and won. It didn't fare quite the same against Ohio State and Michigan State and lost. The interesting facet of the game for Penn State is whether Ryan Bates, the sophomore who started at left tackle before struggling with injuries the last month of the season, will play a significant amount of snaps at right tackle. He might be the key for a Penn State stalemate here.

EDGE: Washington

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

The pass rush certainly helps, but a secondary that Washington practically needed to rebuild after last season has developed into a pretty good one in 2017. Junior Jojo McIntosh is the leader of the unit, but 5-foot-8 corner Myles Bryant has been a playmaker for the Huskies, leading the team with eight pass breakups.

Still, this is a matchup Penn State should win. Washington starts three sophomores in the secondary, and the Nittany Lions are ultra-experienced at the receiver position, with seniors DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki coming off big regular seasons. How Gesicki and 6-foot-4 sophomore Juwan Johnson fare against the shorter-but-physical Huskies defenders will be fun to watch, especially if QB Trace McSorley can find time to throw.

EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

How much is Saquon Barkley going to play? That's a big question everybody seems to be wondering, but let's make this much clear: Penn State is going to have its most success running outside the tackles, if it has success at all. Meaning, sophomore speedster Miles Sanders (Woodland Hills) also could play a major role regardless of Barkley's role. The way Washington's defensive line plays, it is able to keep blockers off of an experienced group of linebackers led by junior Ben Burr-Kirven and the more dynamic senior Keishawn Bierria, who will be charged with keeping the edge closed to Penn State rushers.

EDGE: Penn State

When Washington has the ball

Offensive line vs. Defensive line

Penn State should get help back for the Fiesta Bowl, as defensive end Ryan Buchholz is healthy after the leg injury that sidelined him for most of the last month. That should help a Nittany Lions pass rush against a Washington offensive line that has been solid in its run and pass-blocking schemes. Penn State coaches think Huskies center Coleman Shelton can be a pro prospect, and right tackle Kaleb McGary (6-7, 318 pounds) is a major concern as well.

Penn State will have to use its rotation well and get some good minutes out of backups such as DTs Tyrell Chavis and Robert Windsor, as well as DEs Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos. First and second downs are going to be huge for the Nittany Lions.

EDGE: Washington

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

Make no mistake, this is not as dynamic a Washington passing offense as it was last season, when first-round pick John Ross was sprinting past defenders for deep gains. But QB Jake Browning is an efficient passer whose 68.8 percent completion rate is the third-best in the nation. Senior Dante Pettis has plenty of speed, but teams have been able to prevent him from making consistently big plays in the passing game.

Penn State will have to watch true freshman tight end Hunter Bryant, who emerged as the season went on, but the experience in the secondary with safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley should be a big advantage for the Lions.

EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

Washington hasn't really needed to throw the ball that often, considering how good the running game has been. This is probably the best running backs corps Penn State has seen all season, with junior Myles Gaskin leading the way. Players talk about his shiftiness, but he's a more physical runner than he gets credit for. Backups Lavon Coleman and Salvon Ahmed have been outstanding as well, combining for 783 yards and seven touchdowns, so there's no break when Gaskin is sitting.

Penn State is going to have to stay in the base defense to attack the running game, which is going to mean much more time for strong-side linebacker Koa Farmer. Can he hold up against a running game this good, for 60 minutes? That's a big question.

EDGE: Washington

Special teams

Kicking game

Both teams have solid punting games, although Penn State's trends to the dynamic side a little more often with Blake Gillikin leading the charge. But Washington's Joel Whitford, who averages 41.4 yards per punt, has been solid.

Kicking games for both teams have been up and down. Penn State's Tyler Davis hasn't even attempted a field goal of longer than 35 yards since the Indiana game in September, but his kickoffs have been solid. Washington senior kicker Tristan Vizcaino has been dicey on field goals of longer than 30 yards all season — he has made just half of his 14 attempts from those distances — and he has only 16 touchbacks on 70 kickoffs. There are some scoring opportunities here for Penn State.

EDGE: Penn State

Return game

Two dynamic return games at work, but Pettis is the best in the nation returning punts. That said, here's another area where Barkley's participation — or lack thereof — will be very interesting. He becomes a real weapon against a kickoff man who struggles to put the ball in the end zone. The last time that happened, against Ohio State, Barkley started the game with a return.

EDGE: Washington

Overview

For as much as the coaches have raved this week about how both teams remind each other of themselves, there are some glaring differences that will make for an intriguing game. Penn State has one of the nation's top scoring offenses, and Washington has stifled offenses all season. Barkley and McSorley and Pettis and Vea have made most of the headlines this week on both sides, but this game is probably going to come down to how well Penn State limits Browning's big plays and how frustrating the Washington defense can make things for Penn State's receivers. An early big play can open things up for either side. But here's what it comes down to: Washington is really good on the defensive line, and Penn State's offensive line still has plenty of questions. Vea and Gaines are the difference as Penn State's bowl struggles continue.

Prediction: Washington 23, Penn State 20

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