It’s impossible to tell the story of Penn State football without mentioning the Fiesta Bowl, and the same is true of the 2017 season.
In his edition of The Football Letter recapping Penn State’s 35-28 victory over Washington in the Nittany Lions’ latest appearance in the prestigious game, John Black laid out how closely linked the two are, and how Penn State helped the bowl elevate to its elite status.
The folks in Phoenix love Penn State, because it always brings planeloads of fans and a big television audience. And in their first four appearances between 1977 and 1986, the Nittany Lions provided great impetus to the bowl’s rapid rise from a regional affair to the Big Five of the national bowls.
Penn State loves the Fiesta, because the Lions have compiled their best record in any of the postseason classics there and the players are always shown a great time.
State’s fans love escaping the northeast winter by going to Arizona, because they have always found plenty of sunshine, delightfully warm temperatures, excellent hospitality and fun things to do.
The most fun, of course, was watching their Lions cage three Heisman Trophy winners—Marcus Allen of USC in 1982, Vinnie Testaverde of Miami in 1987 and Ricky Williams of Texas in 1997.
And who will ever forget the Lions’ upset of Miami to win the national championship in the 1987 Duel in the Desert, witnessed by 70 million television viewers in addition to the sellout crowd in Sun Devil Stadium?
Penn State amassed a bowl-record 545 yards of total offense against Washington in late December 2017, while rolling to its second straight 11-win season, its 29th bowl victory, and its second postseason decision over the Huskies. Penn State beat Washington, 13–10, in the 1983 Aloha Bowl in Hawaii.
The Nittany Lions’ entered the game ranked ninth with the Huskies three spots behind in 12th, and Penn State beat the team that edged them out the previous year in the College Football Playoff. The 2017 team was part of quite possibly the most successful four-year run for Penn State in the Big Ten era, as the team won 40 games in four years. Even their losses were close, as the Nittany Lions’ two setbacks in 2017 were by a combined four points to Ohio State and Michigan State.
The wins, meanwhile, came in bunches and with plenty of flair.
Penn State outscored its three non-conference opponents (Akron, Pitt, Georgia State), by a combined score of 141-14. The conference open was memorable for a different reason, as Trace McSorley found Juwan Johnson in the back of the end-zone for a walk-off win at Kinnick Stadium, one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten.
Saquon Barkley — you may remember him? — put together an epic performance of more than 300 yards from scrimmage (211 rush/94 receiving), befuddling and mesmerizing the Hawkeye defense with leaps, stutter steps, and moves that can only be described as Barkley-esque.
Penn State was an incredibly fun team to watch with Joe Moorhead running the offense; he accepted the head coaching offer at Mississippi State prior to the Fiesta Bowl, where Ricky Rahne served as offensive coordinator and called plays. Rahne has since accepted the head coaching position at Old Dominion.
In total, Penn State scored at least 30 points in all but two of their games, and also produced 40-plus points six times, 50-plus points four times, and 60-plus points once.
Many of the stars from that team are now on NFL rosters, and it’s entirely possible that a decade from now, one or two will be future Hall of Famers. Fans can look back further on the 2017 season by logging in below to read The Football Letter issues from that season, as well as view photo galleries from the season on our Flickr page.
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