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Penn State running game must deal with Huskies' 340-pound Vita Vea

One of the key matchups in the Fiesta Bowl will be the Nittany Lions' ability to run the ball against Vea and Washington's No. 1-ranked defense.

Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea, holding the Apple Cup trophy after the Huskies beat Washington State last month.
Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea, holding the Apple Cup trophy after the Huskies beat Washington State last month.Read moreTed S. Warren / AP

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Vita Vea says he still experiences times when he feels small on a football field, a rather incredulous statement for a guy who stands 6-foot-5 and tips the scales at a robust 340 pounds.

"It's weird," the redshirt junior defensive tackle from the University of Washington said this week at a Fiesta Bowl media session. "I step on the field and sometimes, I still feel kind of small. After the game, especially after the [Washington State] game, I'm shaking hands and looking and thinking, 'Wow, these guys are big.'

"There's a few [offensive] linemen that are taller than me. Like size-wise, they look bigger, but I always know I'm the heaviest man on the field. So I guess that helps me."

Vea, a major cog in the Huskies' No. 1 rush defense that will be tested by Saquon Barkley and Penn State in Saturday's game at University of Phoenix Stadium, has proven he is more than just a heavy dude.

The Pac-12's 2017 defensive player of the year, Vea possesses strength, power and quickness in fending off frequent double-team blocks. He is effective in occupying offensive linemen, allowing his unblocked linebackers to make tackles, and using his quickness to slide off blocks and fill the hole.

"It makes my life a whole lot easier," said linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, the Huskies' leading tackler. "In the run game, it feels like I really don't have to do all that much other than just kind of be in the right spot and the ball is going to come to me. Vita can take up two every single play, and he's going to do it the whole game. He doesn't get tired."

The presence of Vea and his running mate, 322-pound tackle Greg Gaines, will pose problems for the Nittany Lions, who are facing the nation's top rush defense for the third time this season. They burned Michigan for 224 yards on the ground, but managed just 65 in their loss at Michigan State.

"You can't move him," Penn State head coach James Franklin said Friday. "You're trying to get double teams and be able to get push up to the second level. What happens is either he's able to make the play at the line of scrimmage by creating a stalemate and ditching the guy at the last second and making the tackle, or it puts the linebackers in a great situation. … Blockers aren't able to come off on the linebacker at the next level."

Vea, from Milpitas, Calif., played defense in high school and scored 11 touchdowns as a senior running back. He tried one pass in a wildcat formation, but "I threw the ball 50 feet over the receiver's head; he looked up and it's outta here."

In grayshirting (not allowed to practice with the team) and redshirting in his two years after graduation, Vea got his weight up to its current number for his first season in 2015.

"I think I [stunk] when I first came in," he said. "It's definitely a challenge being a star player on your high school team and then coming to the collegiate level at the bottom again. I always had faith in myself to get better every year. Gradually every year, I got better and better."

As for the attention of the double teams, "it seems kind of fun for me," he said.

"It's that competitiveness of trying to beat a double team. You get beat one play and you're like, 'Oh man, I almost had them. I'm going to get them this play.' You keep fighting to win every play. It's just funny for me."

Vea, who is expected to declare for the NFL draft after this season, also is excited for the matchup against Barkley, another likely draft candidate in 2018.

"That's pretty cool to go against him, something to tell your kids," he said. "I played in the Fiesta Bowl, one of the biggest bowls in college football, and we played against the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL, a great running back, Hall of Fame in college."

Penn State vs. Washington

Saturday, 4 p.m., University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

TV: ESPN. Radio: WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).

Records: Penn State, 10-2 overall, 7-2 Big Ten, ranked No. 9 by both the Associated Press and the College Football Playoff committee. Washington, 10-2, 7-2 Pac-12, ranked No. 11 by CFP committee, No. 12 by AP.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (35-17 in 4th season at Penn State, 59-32 overall). Washington, Chris Petersen (37-15 in 4th season at Washington, 129-28 overall).

History: Penn State leads, 2-0.

Last meeting: Penn State, 13-10, in the 1983 Aloha Bowl in Honolulu.

Talking points

The Barkley Story I: Saquon Barkley has been peppered all week with questions about not if, but when, he will announce that he is leaving Penn State to enter the NFL draft. He has tried to deflect the attention, saying at one point that the Fiesta Bowl "shouldn't be focused on my decision. It should be focused on how Penn State matches up against Washington." Barkley noted he might not make and announce a final decision until very near the Jan. 15 deadline. But the bet is that he makes the jump to the next level, where he likely will be a top-five pick.

The Barkley Story II: Even with an enormous pro contract awaiting him, Barkley has insisted over the previous month that he will play, and not sit out as Christian McCaffery and Leonard Fournette did in the 2016 postseason because of the possible injury risk. But now comes the ticklish situation of just how much to use him. Will he play a full game? A half? Will he approach his in-season average of 22 touches per game, or will his load be reduced? Will James Franklin send him back to return kickoffs? Will it just be business as usual? And how many of you will be cringing when Barkley takes a hard hit? This is certainly uncharted territory.

To sack or be sacked: Much of the success of quarterbacks Trace McSorley of Penn State and Jake Browning of Washington will rely on how well they're protected. Both teams rank in the top 11 in FBS in sacks – the Nittany Lions with 38, the Huskies with 37. Washington, however, has done a much better job of keeping its guy clean, allowing just 16 sacks. McSorley, meanwhile, has been sacked 28 times, and his quick reactions have prevented that number from being higher. The Lions must give him time to throw.

Running on the big guy: One of Penn State's main headaches with the Huskies defense is 6-foot-5, 340-pound tackle Vita Vea, the Pac-12's defensive player of the year who has been effective despite constant double teams. Franklin said the Nittany Lions have placed an emphasis in this week's practices on running the ball inside, something they haven't done well all season, and it will be interesting to see how they try to handle Vea.

Lethal return games: The Huskies boast one of the great punt returners in college football history in senior Dante Pettis, who has averaged 20.4 yards per runback with four touchdowns this season. He has returned nine punts for touchdowns in his career, an NCAA record. Freshman Salvon Ahmed averages 28.5 yards on kickoff returns. The Lions counter with junior DeAndre Thompkins (14.5 yards per punt return, third in FBS) and Barkley (28.4 yards on kickoff returns, 10th). Look for a lot of funky kickoffs and punts in this game.