Washington fans have been spoiled in recent years by great running back play. Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey, two of the best backs in program history, just so happened to play out their careers back-to-back. During that span, boasting a 1,000 yard rusher became routine.
When Sankey finally left for the NFL before the 2014 season, it became clear that this time there would be no hidden star emerging the way Sankey himself had exploded onto the scene after Polk's departure. Dwayne Washington led a committee approach that certainly had its moments (most notably his string of 100+ yard games towards the end of the year), but no every-down candidate stepped into the spotlight.
Much the same was expected in 2015. Dwayne Washington was viewed as the likely starter, but few projected him to step up as a 15-20 carry back. Meanwhile, Lavon Coleman was identified as a likely contributor in a committee approach, and many hoped that Myles Gaskin would find some kind of role as a true freshman despite his lack of size.
Anyone who had mustered up off-season enthusiasm for the running game had it squashed in the season-opening loss at Boise State. D. Washington started and carried the ball 8 times...for 18 yards. Gaskin burned the redshirt right away only to gain 5 yards on 5 carries. Coleman was an afterthought with 1 carry for -2 yards.
The very next week a curious thing happened against FCS Sacramento State. Myles Gaskin rushed for 143 yards and 3 touchdowns on a team-high 14 carries. As exciting as it was to see him tear up an opposing defense, words of caution were shared all around as quality of opponent was considered.
Gaskin was forced back down to earth by the Utah State defense. Gaskin led the team yet again with 15 carries, but he only managed 42 yards and was completely overshadowed by the out-of-the-backfield receiving production of Dwayne Washington, who caught two touchdowns to help secure a solid win.
Against Cal, D. Washington suddenly showed something on the ground with his first 10-carry, 109-yard, 1 touchdown performance. Gaskin was a non-factor with 5 carries for 15 yards.
At this point in the season, the run game was not particularly reliable. Dwayne Washington continued to exist as a home run threat, but no back on the roster could be relied upon for production on any given down. Dwayne himself seemed painfully hesitant between the tackles.
Things changed down at the Coliseum. Gaskin toted the ball a career-high 22 times for 134 yards and a touchdown, serving as the catalyst for a huge upset win. Notably, D. Washington was bottled up to the tune of 15 yards on 9 carries.
Even in losses to Oregon and Stanford, Gaskin continued a string of 100+ yard performances while receiving essentially no help from Washington or Coleman.
The true freshman wasn't really necessary in the beatdown of Arizona, which saw his streak of big games cut short thanks to lack of playtime. This time Washington used his handful of touches to score on the ground and through the air.
The grueling loss to Utah would prove to be D. Washington's last performance as a Husky. He played well behind Gaskin, chipping in 55 yards on only 6 carries, while Gaskin continued in his newfound role as the feature back (20 carries, 93 yards, 1 TD).
The last three games of the regular season were the Gaskin show. The trip to Arizona State proved disastrous, and yet Gaskin still crossed the century mark and scored another touchdown. With Dwayne injured, Deontae Cooper made a few performances as the backup. Oregon State provided little resistance in a beatdown, allowing Jomon Dotson, Lavon Coleman, Deontae Cooper, and Ralph Kinne to see the field.
The Apple Cup made it clearer than ever that Gaskin had grown into a feature role. He toted the ball a whopping 32 times, grinding out 138 yards and two key scores. Coleman reappeared in relief with 9 carries, with Cooper behind him.
It seemed the 192-pound Gaskin carrying the ball 32 times in order to snuff out a ranked in-state rival would have to be his signature performance on the season. And then he scored 4 touchdowns in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, one of them on an 86-yard romp that I will re-watch for years.
Four touchdowns and 181 yards on 26 touches. That is a 7.0 yards-per-carry average! The numbers are all the more impressive in the context of a game that stayed competitive throughout. He was not running up his numbers in an attempt to kill the clock.
This review of the running backs turned into a recap of Gaskin's tremendous season because, regardless of how unlikely it appeared back in August, Gaskin is the star of this offense. In the last third of the season, with Dwayne Washington injured and no longer providing a dynamic big-play threat, Gaskin somehow elevated his game to equal the best performance of Polk and Sankey. He finished with 1302 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Still, that is not to say the backfield was devoid of other talent. Lavon Coleman also stepped up after Dwayne went down. Even carrying the ball 25-30 times, Gaskin needed to be spelled for around 5-10 carries, and Lavon provided some hard-fought gains when given the chance. To me, he looked night-and-day better in those last few weeks compared to last year or even early 2015, and I think he has a clear support role carved out for next season.
I failed to mention Chico McClatcher because his gadget-type role felt removed from the regular pecking order at running back. The staff made sure to use him a few times per game to take advantage of his quickness, and it generally worked out well. He ended the year with 153 yards and 4 touchdowns on 19 carries (8.1 ypc) and an additional 87 yards and a score via 8 receptions.
Deontae Cooper was only called upon when injury or a lopsided score made it necessary, while Kinne and Dotson mostly just played in the second half against the Beavers.
Gaskin finished the year with 227 carries compared to just 47 for Washington, 33 for Coleman, 19 for McClatcher, 18 for Dotson, and 16 for Cooper.
Why has the run game made so much progress? Some is probably just a matter of Gaskin growing more comfortable, but a ton of the credit has to go to the offensive line. I essentially ignored blocking here because one of these will be written for the offensive line, but it's important to note that these stats don't occur in a vacuum of individual effort. It's just much more fun for the sake of off-season articles to pretend for a moment that position groups can be evaluated in isolation.
As for the grade itself, it's tough to evaluate an entire season's performance given that it was such a progression. If I'm grading the end product as it stood post-bowl, it's definitely an A. But given that the Huskies lost a few early games in part because the run game could not yet be relied upon, it feels like I should weight each performance equally week-to-week, so that drags the grade down a bit.
Overall Grade: B+