Browning, Huskies “excited” for Fiesta Bowl
As the rest of the college football world watched television or tracked social media Sunday, the Washington Huskies were coming off the practice field.
Like everyone, they had heard all the potential bowl game scenarios. According to projections, UW was going to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Or the Huskies are heading to San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl. Some players knew the Cotton Bowl was in play.
Then came the news, which revealed a destination that most had not considered. No. 11 UW (10-2) was going to the Fiesta Bowl to play No. 9 Penn State (10-2) on Dec. 30 in Tempe, Arizona.
And from that revelation came a reason to celebrate for the Huskies, especially Chris Petersen, who had been to that bowl while coaching Boise State.
For the Huskies, it’s the first appearance in the bowl.
“I can't tell you how excited and honored we are to come back here. There's no better bowl. I've been to a bunch of them,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen told reporters during a teleconference. “The way we were treated – I've been to two Fiesta Bowls; we also played TCU down there a few years after we played Oklahoma.
“When we heard today that we were coming back, 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 and UW will collide for only the third time. The Huskies are 0-2 in those games with the most recent meeting coming in 1983.
UW’s path to its first-ever Fiesta appearance was something of a mini-saga.
The Huskies, at minimum, were in play for the Alamo or Holiday due the Pac-12 tie-ins for both games. But there was some chatter last Sunday about UW potentially sneaking into a New Year’s Six game.
Ranked No. 13 in the College Football Playoff standings, the Huskies needed some help to climb the rankings for a legitimate shot at a New Year’s Six appearance.
Everything started getting real Friday. UW needed Stanford and TCU — two teams ranked above the Huskies in the College Football Playoff standings — to lose their respective conference title games.
Stanford fell first in a 31-28 loss to USC in the Pac-12 Championship. A day later, TCU was crushed in a 41-17 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship.
Those losses opened the door for UW to reach a New Year’s Six game.
“I would hear in the locker room what everybody was thinking,” Huskies quarterback Jake Browning said of UW’s bowl fate. “But it changed so much, you don’t really know but I would definitely listen to what people had to say.”
The final CFP rankings, which were released Sunday morning, had the Huskies ranked 11th and in the final position for a New Year’s Six berth.
Several publications projected UW would rise up the CFP poll and get the final spot. But it was under the assumption the Huskies would go to the Cotton in Dallas.
Imagine the surprise when the discussion pivoted from the Cotton to the Fiesta.
UW and Penn State were initially penciled for the Cotton until Ohio State was left out of the CFP semifinal.
The argument was made by a few college football pundits that it would be stale to have the Buckeyes play in a third straight Fiesta.
So how’s this for a compromise? Penn State and UW go to the Fiesta while Ohio State faces USC in the Cotton.
Fiesta Bowl executive director Mike Nealy said they only had a “short window” of time prior to finding his site was getting the Huskies and Nittany Lions.
Huskies linebacker Tevis Bartlett, however, may have provided the most insightful remark on what UW went through leading up to Sunday.
“Especially this week, it’s kinda tough because there’s not a lot you can do,” Bartlett said. “Our body of work was already done ... We want to play in the best bowl game that we can and I think this is a great opportunity to show what we can do.”
This is UW’s second bowl game in the state or Arizona. UW’s first appearance was a 30-22 loss to Oklahoma State in the 2014 Cactus Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
The Huskies are 18-17-1 all-time in the postseason, and they are making their eighth straight bowl game appearance.
Penn State began the year by roaring out to a 7-0 start while making a case for being the No. 1 team in college football, until losing consecutive games to then-No. 6 Ohio State and No. 24 Michigan State.
Both losses, which were by a combined four points, cost the Nittany Lions a chance at reaching Big Ten title game and the CFP semifinal.
Ranked 20th in defense and 28th in offense, the Nittany Lions are guided by running back Saquon Barkley. One of college football’s biggest stars, he was an early Heisman Trophy favorite who could be a first-round pick in 2018 NFL Draft.
Barkley rushed for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 47 passes for 594 yards plus three touchdowns.
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark