It was a sparsely attended game in the historic Cotton Bowl with a listed 20,229 in attendance for a bowl game few around the country cared about, but the victory over Southern Miss counts all the same and goes into the record books as the 18th bowl game win in program history. It ensures a winning record for the 2015 Dawgs, their 6th straight season above .500. Washington carries a 3-game winning streak into the off-season, one that will see the Huskies get a lot of attention as a trendy pick to break out with a big season next year thanks to a sizable core group of talented youngsters returning. The game itself was a good one as the Golden Eagles out of Conference USA - down 21-10 midway through the 2nd quarter - used some big plays to tie up the game at 24-all late in the 3rd quarter and put a scare into Washington. But the Huskies came right back, put some distance on Southern Miss, and salted the game away in the 4th quarter. Here's our view of how they played:
Jake Browning shook off a 1-4 start to complete his next 10 passes, and the Husky passing game was rolling early as Browning had put up 201 yards in the 1st half. Jake also once again showed off his nifty feet as he escaped pressure and picked up 28 yards on 5 rushes (including his only sack, a 2-yard loss). He had a few misfires on the day - another underthrown long ball that Marvin Hall still should have caught and waiting a tick too late on an out route to Jaydon Mickens - but none were momentum-changers, and for the most part he was on the mark and making good decisions. With the Husky run game clicking in the 2nd half his overall numbers were relatively modest, but he finished 23/34 (67.6%) for 284 yards and no picks. Jeff Lindquist was the choice for the Myles Gaskin Wildcat plays, but he also had a play that appeared to be called for him to show off his arm - an empty backfield with a diamond bunch right and a single wide-out left. Those are usually designed for one-on-one coverage for the single receiver, but the play never had a chance due to a bad snap that Lindquist had to scramble to secure. Grade: B+
It was an interesting start to the game as Coach Bhonapha used Lavon Coleman at RB to start the game and subbed-in Deontae Cooper before Gaskin made his first appearance. It was a nice start for Coleman as he ripped off a 24-yard gain on his first carry, but the drive ended up stalling. From then on it was mostly Gaskin, and he capped off drive #2 with his first TD on the day. Still, the running game was having trouble finding daylight in the 1st half as Gaskin had just 11 yards on 9 carries and the team had 79 yards on 20 carries. It was a different story in the 2nd half though - after the Golden Eagles tied things up midway through the 3rd quarter, Gaskin answered like a boss with an 86-yard TD romp, and from there the Huskies' run game wouldn't be denied. He gained 72 yards on his next 12 carries along with 1 more TD to finish with 181 yards on 26 carries and 4 touchdowns, all records for the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Coleman looked good as well, finishing with 39 yards on 6 carries. With Dwayne Washington off to the NFL Draft, Coleman will be a key component in the UW backfield next season. There was a Jomon Dotson sighting too as he picked up 15 yards on a well-executed screen play and finished with 2 catches for 19 yards. As a team, the Huskies gained 296 yards on 44 carries, with 217 of those coming in the 2nd half. Grade: A
Mickens was determined to go out with a bang, and he was the main weapon for Browning in the passing game with a team-high 8 catches for 95 yards. He also showed off his elusiveness on a fly sweep that he took 29 yards to the house for a TD to put the UW up 21-10 early. He also had a drop in the red zone on 3rd down, though it likely wouldn't have resulted in a score. Hall - the other senior WR - had his most productive day as a Husky receiver with 4 catches for 44 yards, though he had the aforementioned play where he couldn't come up with the catch on an underthrown bomb from Browning, letting the ball go right through his hands. Josh Perkins - another senior - finished with a nice game as he grabbed 3 catches for 69 yards, including a 41-yard pickup on a slant as he showed off his running skills. Chico McClatcher was used as a running threat in this game - perhaps a sign of his future - and he looked good as he gained 26 yards on his 4 carries, though most of that came on a nifty 25-yard fly sweep. There was a Connor Griffin sighting as the walk-on and former Gonzaga hoopster got his first catch, good for 9 yards and a first down. Dante Pettis had 2 catches for 30 yards, including a nice 29-yard gain down to the 1 yard line, but I don't think he returned after getting clocked on the Southern Miss fake punt play. It should be noted that Will Dissly saw a few snaps at TE in this one as a blocker. This isn't a complete surprise as he was part of the TE group picture with Santa down in Dallas earlier in the week - it'll be interesting to see where he lines up this spring. In all, it was a nice way for the seniors to go out, but there's plenty of room for the youngsters to step up next year. Grade: B+
When your offense goes for 580 yards, 44 points and 7.4 yards/play, you have to give a lot of credit to the big fellas up front. With Andrew Kirkland starting again at LT in place of Trey Adams (back spasms), the OL had some issues in the 1st half clearing consistent lanes for the run game, but they kept Jake upright and gave him enough time to hurt Southern Miss through the air. After the big Gaskin TD run in the 3rd quarter the OL seemed to pick up steam, and from there the Huskies were able to grind out the win with a strong rushing attack. While Browning was flushed from the pocket multiple times, he was only dropped for one sack and didn't take a lot of hits. Combined with a ground game that ended up running for 296 yards on 6.7 yards/rush, it was a strong finish to the season for this (mostly) young group and a positive sign for the future. Grade: A
While he didn't start the game, it was great to see Elijah Qualls back out there on the field, and he made his presence felt. He was a persistent thorn in the side of the Southern Miss OL, getting upfield to disrupt their run game and putting pressure on QB Nick Mullens. While he finished with only 2 tackles and 1 sack, he was also credited with 2 QB hurries, and was a big reason why the Golden Eagles finished with just 49 yards on the 23 carries by their running backs. Greg Gaines got the start and was another big reason why Southern Miss struggled to run the ball, and senior Tani Tupou was active as well. Joe Mathis got some extended playing time and tallied 4 tackles and 0.5 TFL and looked good out there - could he be in line for reps at BUCK next season? Jaylen Johnson and Vita Vea were the other primary backups, and Vea showed a glimpse of his potential with an overpowering move to pick up one of the four Husky sacks. Dissly also saw a few snaps along the DL, so clearly the staff hasn't decided on a permanent position switch for him yet. The DL did a great job slowing down the Southern Miss run game before it could get going, and got a fair amount of pressure on Mullens. Grade: A-
In their final games as Huskies, both Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton showed they'll be missed. Littleton notched 6 tackles (1 TFL), a pass breakup and a QB hurry. Feeney had 3 tackles, but made them count as 2 were TFL and 1 was a sack. Azeem Victor was active (especially early) and often cleaned up after the DL in shutting down the Southern Miss rushing attack. He had a big game with 7 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 2 pass breakups. If he's not All-Conference and an All-American candidate next year I'll be shocked. Keishawn Bierria didn't pop off the screen as much as the rest of the starting LB crew, but still finished with 7 tackles on the day. Psalm Wooching got extended playing time out wide, spelling Feeney and Littleton, while Scott Lawyer was the main reserve inside as Ben Burr-Kirven had to sit out due to concussion symptoms. Grade: A-
With CB Kevin King also out with a concussion, the secondary was down a key player vs. a prolific passing attack. While it wasn't a crippling blow, it certainly had an impact. Both Darren Gardenhire and Sidney Jones caught breaks in this game as they were beaten deep by Golden Eagle receivers, who then dropped the ball. Jones was also the victim of a highly questionable PI call on the Southern Miss drive that tied the game in the 3rd quarter, before leaving the game later with what looked like a hamstring pull. That put true freshman in the game opposite Gardenhire, but Southern Miss appeared unable to take advantage. With King out, Budda Baker spent much of his time playing nickel with JoJo McIntosh stepping in at safety. Baker was his usual steady, fundamentally sound self, showing off terrific open-field tackling skills. Brian Clay didn't have his best game as he appeared to take poor angles on a couple of long Southern Miss catch-and-run plays. The Golden Eagles had some success in the pass game as Mullens completed 25/38 for 331 yards and 2 touchdowns. Most of the damage was done by WR Michael Thomas, who had 9 catches for 190 yards and both scores. Not the best game from this unit this season, but missing King was tough against an offense like this one. Grade: C+
A mixed-bag for ST Coordinator Jeff Choate in his final game with Washington. On the plus side, Cameron Van Winkle hit all three of his field goal tries (though all were from 24 yards or closer), Tristan Vizcaino was solid on kickoffs, and both McClatcher and Hall were effective in the return game. On the downside, while the coverage units were generally good, they did let Southern Miss pick up a big 40 yard KO return to average 22.6 on the day and Korey Durkee had a net average of 36.0 yards per kick as he boomed both of his punts for touchbacks. Worst though was getting burned by a well-designed and well-executed fake punt late in the 2nd quarter deep in Southern Miss territory. That 4th down conversion gave them life as they ended up marching down the field for a TD to close the gap to 21-17, at a time when it felt like the Huskies were about to step on their throats and put the game out of reach in the 1st half. Grade: C
Unlike last year, it was evident in this game that the Huskies were motivated and focused. While a lot of that difference from last year can be chalked up to circumstances (the post New Year's date for the Cactus Bowl) and perhaps some seniors looking ahead to the NFL draft, this crew clearly heeded the lessons learned last year and the coaching staff has to be given some credit for getting their minds in the right place.
The offensive gameplan featured a fair amount of trickeration as we've come to expect from this staff - some fly sweeps, a number of Wildcat plays, even a Statue of Liberty play - but it wasn't all bad as some of it worked quite well. More importantly, they had a plan of attack in the passing game from the get-go that found success, and whether it was fatigue or making adjustments, the run game wasn't abandoned and it became a key cog in the 2nd half to help the Huskies put Southern Miss in their rear-view mirrors for good.
The defense looked good much of the time, but give the Golden Eagles credit - they have a good scheme and some talent on offense, particularly WR Thomas who looks like he'll play on Sundays next year. When the Huskies weren't able to get pressure on Mullens, he was able to find holes in the secondary and keep his team in the game. Next to finding replacements for Feeney and Littleton, one of the main priorities for the defensive staff will be to continue to build up the depth in the secondary to withstand injuries.
While Southern Miss made this game closer than many expected and scored the 2nd most points on the season against the highly-ranked Husky defense, this was a good win. They showed resolve and maturity in weathering some big plays from the Golden Eagles and wearing them down by the 4th quarter to secure a comfortable win, get to 7-6 for the year, and head into the off-season feeling good. Grade: B+