Considering the state of the Huskies' program at the start of 2009, six straight bowl game appearances is a remarkable feat. In fact, there are only 18 schools in all of the FBS who have longer consecutive bowl streaks. Florida State (34 straight) and Virginia Tech (23) top that list. Also of note are Boise State (16), Oregon (11), and Stanford (7).
So, making six in a row, especially after coming off eight straight years without one such appearance, is a feat in and of itself... even if you have to scratch and claw to reach the six wins necessary (am I right, Virginia Tech?). It speaks to the endurance of the program, the consistency of its recruiting, and the accomplishment of the coaching staff in the areas of player development and team psychology.
It also may speak to a little bit of luck.
Still, Husky fans are not satisfied with simply making an appearance. We've learned the hard way that just making it to a bowl game is not a reward. Poundings like the ones that we absorbed in bowl appearances such as the 2001 Holiday Bowl (vs Texas), the 2011 Alamo Bowl (vs Baylor) and last year in the Cactus Bowl (vs Oklahoma State) have taught us one thing:
Let's avoid playing the Big 12 in the post-season.
The 2-3 record that we sport in this most recent bowl appearance streak has also compelled Husky fans to ask for more when it comes to UW's participation in the postseason. Just making it is less the goal and more the standard as the program endures the long, steep climb back to national relevancy. Embarrassing outputs like the ones put on display against Baylor or against OKST can no longer be chalked up as "part of the growth experience."
The Huskies need to take the next step in their evolution. Taking care of business against a dangerous Southern Miss team in the Heart of Dallas Bowl this Saturday is not negotiable if UW expects to build on the momentum surrounding this young team.
Unfortunately, this young Huskies team has been anything but consistent and reliable for most of the season. Prone to lapses of poor execution, questionable judgement, and silly penalties, these Dawgs have been enduring growing pains on a game-to-game and, sometimes, quarter-to-quarter basis.
What must happen for the Huskies to break through on Saturday and earn their third win in this current six-year bowl streak?
1. Can UW offensive line establish control of the line and manage Southern Miss's blitzing schemes?
I think we all realize that one very possible route to winning this game would be the Apple Cup recipe: force a bunch of turnovers, score on some short fields, and play keep-away from Southern Miss's offense.
While that would be fun to watch, the reality is that this UW team needs to show that it is able to physically dominate a team with less depth than what it has. This is particularly true for this UW offensive line - a unit that is being developed as the centerpiece of the team's offensive philosophy, but whose youth and inconsistency have been a source of much consternation.
UW wants to be able to establish the run against every opponent, but especially against one like Southern Miss that sports such an explosive offense. UW will undoubtedly attempt to wear out the Golden Eagle front seven physically with heavy doses of Myles Gaskin and Dwayne Washington. If the offensive line can get going downhill, keep UW ahead of the chains, and keep Jake Browning upright on passing downs, UW will have a chance at establishing their game plan. Ideally, that looks like a highly efficient affair with a 55-45% run/pass mix and a high third-down conversion percentage.
That kind of performance would go a long ways to establishing optimism around the program that this UW team, anchored by that young O-Line, is a physical force to be reckoned with going into 2016.
2. Can UW's defensive rotations maintain the same level of physical prowess at each level?
Sticking with that theme of physicality, we turn that same lens on the defensive side of the ball. Again, the goal is to not just "win by any means necessary." Rather, it is to establish your identity and then demonstrate that you can dominate with it.
UW's defensive identity is not so much built around the performance of stars like Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Azeem Victor, or Elijah Qualls. Rather, it is that we have rotations of players at each level that can go three-deep and that each one of them is going to give the opponent the same physical challenge as the last. Ideally, we want to stress that offensive guard who has to deal with Qualls on one play and then Vita Vea on the next. Or at offensive tackle who has to figure out the strength of Jaylen Johnson on second down or a wide-split Travis Feeney on third down. Or a slot receiver who has to contend with the speed of Budda Baker on one route or the imposing size of Kevin King on another.
Whatever the situation, UW will know that it has established its defense not so much by the prevention of every big play, but in the establishment of constant pressure against Southern Miss across the various one-on-one matchups no matter who is in there. The goal is to get that Golden Eagle offense to wear down before your defense does, so that those big chunk plays are harder to come by in the fourth quarter.
3. WIll UW demonstrate appropriate respect for their opponent?
We learned in last year's Cactus Bowl that attitude matches preparation in importance. The Huskies came out flat against an Oklahoma State team that was barely .500 on the season and who was starting a talented but raw true freshman quarterback.
They proceeded to get their purple tails handed to them in somewhat embarrassing fashion as said quarterback dropped bombs all over the Husky secondary and OKST mixed it up with plays that included rushing attempts (successful ones!) by their starting defensive nose tackle.
Washington was the softer team that day not so much because they were unprepared but more because of how they viewed their opponent. Coaches preach "expect to win" as a mantra which, I think, is fine. However, how you expect to win should be based more on your own standards than upon the lack of perceived capability of your opponent. UW, collectively, were unprepared to win the Cactus Bowl because they thought that OKST would underperform as opposed to the Huskies being able to outperform.
Southern Miss is not a team incapable of striking a blow or two against this young Husky team. They have an explosive offense and they have a couple of playmakers in their defensive front seven who can absolutely cause some difficulties for UW.
How UW handles the adversity that arises when Southern Miss does make some plays will speak volumes about how much respect they have for their opponent. Last season, UW seemed surprised and unprepared for the gut punches that the Cowboys threw their way. A team with more respect for their opponent would recognize that some plays will not go their way and jump right back into the next play with no loss of focus or enthusiasm.
This is what I'll be looking for both in terms of how UW can win the game and how they maintain that positive trajectory going into 2016.