GLENDALE, Ariz. — If Saturday afternoon was Saquon Barkley’s goodbye to college football, the star running back and his Penn State offense put on an encore performance that lived up to the last few years of the Saquon Show.
Barkley ran for 137 yards and two touchdowns against No. 11 Washington, who entered bowl season with the top-ranked rushing defense in the country. His backfield partner, quarterback Trace McSorley, added two more touchdowns through the air in a 35-28 victory for No. 9 Penn State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State’s win in the desert marks the fourth time that a Big Ten has beaten a Pac-12 team during bowl season. The leagues have been opposite ends of lopsided records so far in the postseason with the Big Ten stretching its record to 6-0 with the Nittany Lions’ victory(with Wisconsin and Michigan still left to play). The Pac-12 won only one of its nine bowl games this year.
Washington won 10 games in the Pac-12 this year on the strength of its defense. The Huskies allowed only 185.1 passing yard per game in the regular season. McSorley surpassed that mark just three minutes into the second quarter with a deep ball to receiver DeAndre Thompkins, which set up the Lions’ third score of the game. He finished with 32 completions and 342 yards through the air.
At that point, the Huskies had less than 100 yards of total offense – most of which had come on a trick play – and negative rushing yards. Washington would rally in the second half, pulling within a touchdown with big plays in both the third and fourth quarters. But Penn State’s backfield duo converted third downs at an eye-popping rate — 13 of 17 in the game and three on their final, game-sealing drive alone — to melt away all but the faintest hopes of a comeback.
The lasting image from this game will belong to Barkley. The junior provided one last highlight in a season full of them when he jumped into the end zone at the end of a school record-setting 92-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
With a two-scored lead and a boatload of momentum, Barkley slipped through a hole near the 10-yard line then outraced a Washington safety to the edge of the defense. Once he hit the sideline, no one in a purple uniform was going to catch him. Barkley had the space during the last 30 yards of his run to check over his shoulder multiple times and see what he was leaving behind him.
Barkley refused to looked too far in front of him in the week leading up to Saturday’s game, batting away questions about a looming NFL decision like would-be Washington tacklers. He said he wanted to do his best to savor another moment in what has been a remarkable stretch for the Nittany Lions.
James Franklin’s team has put together back-to-back 11 win seasons, including a Big Ten championship and now a major bowl victory. Barkley was the catalyst for a Nittany Lion offense that has led to that success. If the Fiesta Bowl was his last game in a Penn State uniform, as many expect it will be, that offense will be missing many familiar faces in 2018.
Leading receivers DaeSean Hamilton (96 yards, two touchdowns against Washington) and Mike Gesicki are both seniors this season. Joe Moorhead, the offensive coordinator who found innovative ways to make the most of that talent, moved south to take the head coaching job at Mississippi State.
Ricky Rahne, a longtime Franklin assistant with an Ivy League resume, will take Moorhead’s place as offensive coordinator. He’ll get the luxury of a veteran returning starter at quarterback, one who Rahne first recruited when the current staff was still at Vanderbilt. Since coming to Penn State, that staff has tapped into a steady flow of talent prospects on the recruiting trail.
Still, it will be hard to match the weapons Rahne got to use in his play-calling debut. There’s no telling exactly what the future will look like for an offense that has provided some of the best moments in each of the last two bowl seasons.
Like their star, Rahne and Co. weren’t interested in looking too far into the future this weekend. There was more than enough worth seeing on the field right in front of them.