Fiesta Bowl matchups: Barkley vs. Washington’s front seven

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 22: Defensive lineman Vita Vea
SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 22: Defensive lineman Vita Vea /

One matchup headlines any preview of the 2017 Fiesta Bowl. Heisman finalist running back Saquon Barkley versus the nation’s top rush defense. Can Vita Vea and the Washington football front 7 contain Penn State’s marquis RB?

The statistics of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley are daunting.  With 1134 rushing yards, 594 receiving yards, and 21 offensive touchdowns, Barkley is a dominant force out of the Penn State backfield. A Heisman finalist and potential first round draft pick, Barkley will play in the Fiesta Bowl despite risking injury leading up to the NFL Combine. But he faces the Washington Football team‘s strength, their front seven.

Along with Stanford running back Bryce Love, Barkley will be among the two toughest running threats the Washington front seven has seen in 2017. The Huskies allowed Love to run wild for 166 yards and three scores.  That is despite holding firm against the majority of the Pac-12’s rushing attacks the rest of the season.

A threat on the ground and through the air

What makes Barkley so dangerous is his ability to make huge plays in the passing game. He  — averaged 14.4 yards per reception last season and 12.6 yards in 2017. Trace McSorley, the Nittany Lions’ third-year signal-caller, relies on check-downs to Barkley in third down and long yardage situations.

Barkley has caught at least one McSorley pass in every game this season, and hit 12 receptions for 94 yards in Penn State’s loss at Iowa. With Washington’s knack for shutting down opposing rushers, Penn State may turn to the passing game to allow Barkley to find an early rhythm.

Barkley has seen mixed results against stout rush defenses through the regular season. Against Michigan’s 21st ranked rush defense, Barkley racked up 108 yards on just 15 carries. He ran two into the endzone and added another touchdown through the air.

At Michigan State in early November, Barkley was slowed for 63 yards on 14 carries. The Spartans’ fifth ranked rush defense held Barkley out of the end zone and powered to a victory, effectively eliminating the Nittany Lions from the playoff conversation.

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UW’s dominant force in the middle

Vita Vea is arguably the top interior defensive lineman in the country. The 6-foot-5 tackle weighs nearly 350 pounds, but maintains a highly athletic style of play that terrorizes opposing running backs.

Vea was named to the All Pac-12 First Team early this month and dots the radars of a number of NFL teams. He has one last chance to display his dominance on national television before he enters the professional realm.

In his final regular season action, Vea earned a pair of tackles and half a sack in likely his last Apple Cup appearance.


Top rush defenses have had success in containing Barkley out of the backfield. With a few weeks of rest and gameplanning, head coach Chris Petersen is as good as any in preparing his teams on both sides of the ball.

Expect the UW front seven to sell-out against the run. Vea may be able to set the tone early with the help of linebacker and leading tackler linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.

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Barkley will find his success in the passing game. If Washington’s linebackers and safeties fail to clamp down on Barkley’s short receptions on third downs, that rhythm may transfer to the Penn State running game. That’s where the Nittany Lions have a chance to do their damage.