The end of the year is fast approaching, and with it comes the business end of bowl season. The New Year’s Six bowl games headline this stretch. Aside from the playoff games, there are some other games drawing major interest. The Fiesta Bowl has a very intriguing match-up of 10-2 teams, with the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Washington Huskies squaring off. Each of these teams had higher expectations for their seasons, but can still finish with a strong statement. The Fiesta Bowl will be one of two New Year’s Six match-ups between the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences.
Players to Watch
Saquon Barkley – Tailback – Penn State
The play-making running back was the Heisman front runner for much of the first half of the season. It was his big plays as much as his overall numbers that had him high on so many people’s list. Barkley amassed 1,728 total yards rushing and receiving and scored 19 touchdowns. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this year. Barkley had at least one play of 35 yards or more in ten out of twelve games this season. His big play ability makes him a threat on every snap.
Mike Gesicki – Tight End – Penn State
The 6’6” senior is the all-time leader for receptions by a tight end at Penn State. He led the team this season with 51 catches, gaining 501 yards. Gesicki was the Nittany Lions’ best red zone threat with a team high nine touchdown catches. He had four games with multiple scoring receptions, and has caught two or more passes in each game.
Tevis Bartlett – Linebacker – Washington
The Huskies defense was sixth nationally allowing only 14.5 points per game. They were led by the junior linebacker Bartlett. He finished the season with 12 tackles for loss, four sacks, and two interceptions. Bartlett helped anchor a defense that allowed only 89 yards per game on the ground. Now he will get to match-up against one of the most electrifying talents in the nation in Barkley.
Myles Gaskin – Tailback – Washington
The explosive junior averaged 6.2 yards per carry on his way to 1,282 rushing yards in 2017. Gaskin led the Huskies with 22 total touchdowns on the season. His production increased as the season wore on, with four of his six 100 yard games coming in the last five weeks. He also had a 114 receiving performance against Utah, highlighted by a 76 yard touchdown. This was his third straight 1,000 yard season for Washington.
Steady Under Center
Washington and Penn State are making return trips to the New Year’s Six bowls, thanks in large part to their quarterbacks. Each of these programs has excelled under the guidance of their current signal callers. Trace McSorley had his second consecutive 3,000 passing season and threw for 26 touchdowns. He is 21-5 in two years as the starter in Happy Valley. While Barkley may get most of the publicity, McSorley has been the steady hand guiding the Penn State back to national relevance.
On the other sideline the Huskies are led by Jake Browning. In 2016 he engineered an undefeated regular season and a berth in the playoffs. His numbers are not eye popping, but with a stout defense and running game to lean on, Browning does what is necessary to win ball games. He also doesn’t make the mistakes that can hurt his team. The junior quarterback has only thrown five interceptions all year, while tossing 18 touchdowns.
Fiesta Bowl 2017: Making a Statement
Each of these teams will have a chance to make a big statement on Saturday. They can end 2017 with a victory over a major program in one of the biggest bowls of the season. The New Year’s Six bowl games give teams not involved in the playoff a chance to measure themselves with equally accomplished opponents. Washington was maligned last season due to its poor schedule strength, while Penn State heard a lot of that same talk this year.
Now these 10-2 teams can put a marker down against a successful Power Five program that will dismiss some of the skepticism they’ve faced. Not only will these schools get a chance to have a signature win, but their conferences can hang their hat on this victory as well. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have long been paired in major bowl games, and the Fiesta Bowl has a chance to add to these storied conferences’ traditions.