Shortly after accepting a bid to play in the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State coach James Franklin implied the football gods were not with his Nittany Lions.
Not because No. 9 Penn State had national championship hopes early in the season and missed out on the College Football Playoff again. But because the matchup against No. 11 Washington could be the toughest test for Franklin's team to date when the Nittany Lions (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) and Huskies (10-2, 7-2) meet in Glendale, Ariz. on Dec. 30.
"It's going to be a challenge," Franklin said. "They are big. They are strong. They are physical. They are fast."
And the Huskies will bring the top-ranked rushing defense in the nation into University of Phoenix Stadium. It will be the third time this season that Penn State's offense will go against the team leading the country in rushing defense. Penn State beat Michigan and its then top-ranked front seven on Oct. 21 but sputtered against Michigan's State's vaunted defense two weeks later in a loss that ultimately knocked Penn State out of the playoff race.
This could be much harder for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions will face Washington's snarling defense without heralded playcaller Joe Moorhead after the Nittany Lions' offensive coordinator took the head coaching job at Mississippi State following the regular season finale. Tight ends coach Ricky Rahne was promoted and will call his second game for Penn State after filling in for a then-incoming Moorhead in the Taxslayer Bowl two years ago.
Penn State lost that game to Georgia but got an early look at Rahne's play calling abilities and quarterback Trace McSorley who entered for an injured Christian Hackenberg and nearly led a second-half comeback.
"I think Ricky is a rising star in the profession," Franklin said. "I know how smart he is. I know how passionate he is about this game and the relationship with our quarterbacks, he's recruited every quarterback on our roster right now. That was a big part of it, being able to continue to build on an exciting style of football that we're playing on the offensive side of the ball."
Vita Vea, a 6-foot-5, 340-pounder who plays all along Washington's defensive line, and his teammates will look to wreck all of that. The Huskies have allowed just over 92 rushing yards per game and have held opponents below 100 yards five times. Penn State's offensive line was banged up down the stretch but still managed to pave the way for 263-plus rushing yards in each of the last two games.
But those were against the lowly defenses of Nebraska and Maryland. In three games before that, Penn State's front five failed to give Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley much room. Barkley ran for no more than 63 yards against Ohio State, Michigan State and Rutgers.
Still, Washington coach Chris Petersen was feeling a bit like Franklin when he learned who his Huskies would face in their final game.
He's wary of Barkley's dazzling skill set, and of McSorley and Penn State's vertical passing game that relies on a bevy of playmaking wideouts.
"When we heard that we were coming back (to the Fiesta Bowl), there was a lot of jumping around and smiling faces," Petersen said. "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.' "