GLENDALE, Ariz-- At its best, Penn State football has been a near unbeatable machine. A churning cauldron of downfield weapons, points and a running back that will go down as one of the most talented to have played in college, let alone simply at Penn State.
At its worst it was a bruised reminder that the program is still not where it wants to be, and not far from sanctions that rendered it on the brink of irrelevance. Not quite able to recover from poorly timed injuries, not always able to find depth in the right places when it has needed it the most. The result has render the Nittany Lions something of an elite mixed bag.
You will always get something good, but in the biggest games against the best teams, those weaknesses have --on occasion-- proven to be just enough to render two seasons historic, but with an aftertaste of having come up just short.
And it was always at the hand of the same thing. Late game drives, simply finishing the job. It had lost the Nittany Lions the Rose Bowl, and in Columbus it had lost them their playoff hopes.
On Saturday that threat lingered in the air during pregame. Washington entered with the nation's best rush defense, and with plenty of talented components to rival Penn State's. After the pounding of Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland to close out the year, this would be a far stiffer test.
But for the second straight year Penn State played its bowl game with a style of explosive offense and tenacious defense that reminded everyone that of all the things the Nittany Lions had been the past two seasons they had been fun most of all.
In the first half it was everything fans had become accustomed to seeing. Trace McSorley was clinical aside from an interception going 18-of-24 for 219 yards including a 48-yard bomb to DaeSean Hamilton in stride. He hit nine targets, and engineered a nearly unthinkable 7-of-8 third down conversion rate.
There was Saquon Barkley, who entered knowing his carries would be limited just a game from an almost certain NFL future. But he, like always, made the most of his chances, ripping off a 92-yard touchdown run that highlighted his speed, shiftiness and power. It looked easy, and aside from a short field touchdown following a turnover and a trick play setting up a touchdown, Washington looked nothing like a once playoff hopeful. By the time the half concluded the Huskies had stumbled to 136 yards of offense ans the Nittany Lions racked up 367 to their name with relative ease.
And then there was the second half.
It could have been the Rose Bowl yet again, an emotional roller-coaster, and a lead squandered. Washington tried to make it that game, driving down the field to open the second half and scoring to cut the lead to just seven points.
Suddenly it was a game. Penn State had played well in the first halves against good teams before, the second though, a very different animal.
But not today. The Nittany Lions responding right back, a looping pass to DaeSean Hamilton giving him his second of the game and Penn State a 35-21 lead to go with it.
15 minutes to go.
All the way down to seven minutes, everything seemed fine. Then it became shades of the Rose Bowl, shades of Ohio State. A 69-yard run by Myles Gaskin cutting it to just 35-28.
So Penn State would have to face its biggest demon, a late game lead having to kill the clock, having to find a way to finish what it started.
First down, a two-yard run by McSorley.
Second, a shovel-pass to Mike Gesicki for just a yard.
So as quickly as the game seemingly turned into a Penn State blowout the Nittany Lions found themselves facing that enemy once again, a short yardage situation, the game seemingly on the line.
And Saquon Barkley pounded it up the middle. First down.
From there the grind continued until a third-and-eight reared its head with just under two minutes to play. McSorley dropped back, stepped up past pressure and launched a 14-yard strike to DaeSean Hamilton.
When it was all said and done Tyler Davis would miss a 45-yard field goal with 34 seconds to go, but the damage was done, Washington had little time, a long field and no timeouts. Three straight incomplete passes set up a long fourth down that ended with an intercepted lateral on fourth down.
With five seconds to play, a kneel by McSorley did the rest.
And Penn State won. A team that had come up short finally, in its final moments, did what it had always failed to do before.
It finished the job.