The 5:16 p.m. kickoff time wasn’t ideal, but give the Pac-12 schedule-makers this much: They were consistent with the Gospel According to Don James, establishing the Apple Cup as the final game of the regular season.
For Washington, this meant the renewal of its intrastate rivalry with Washington State coincided with Senior Day at Husky Stadium, where such soon-to-be-departing mainstays of the program as wide receiver Dante Pettis, tailback Lavon Coleman and center Coleman Shelton participated in a procession that included scout-team players relishing their first and last moment in the spotlight.
Absent from the festivities was Washington quarterback Jake Browning. Although still a junior, he’ll be eligible for the 2018 NFL draft. A few months ago, after throwing 43 touchdowns in leading the Huskies to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff as a sophomore, Browning profiled as high as the second round.
Browning’s numbers fell this season — he began Saturday with 2,451 passing yards, almost 1,000 yards fewer than he produced in 2016 — and his draft status fell with them.
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Browning would be wise to recognize how returning as a senior might boost his NFL stock, but the benefits are not without risk. When he lined up under center for the Huskies first play Saturday, Cougars defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, he of 21.5 career sacks, was positioned across from him.
It’s a hard-knock world.
Meanwhile, Browning’s counterpart, WSU quarterback Luke Falk, has a more defined football future. The conference’s all-time leading passer is a senior likely awaiting his mid-round selection in the next draft.
The 110th contest between the Huskies and Cougars wasn’t touted exclusively as a Browning-Falk duel — like starting pitching aces in the American League, quarterbacks never are on the field at the same time — but when the most accomplished players in a contest happen to occupy the most important roles in a contest, it’s tempting to regard the contest as a two-man show.
Washington dispelled any such notion on the first possession of the game. It began with Coleman picking up six yards off tackle and ended, 10 plays and more than five minutes later, with Myles Gaskin bolting into the WSU end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.
In addition to enabling the Huskies to take a 7-0 lead, the scoring drive served as a sort of mission statement for the offense: We will assert ourselves on the ground, and throw the ball less as a primary tactic than a way to keep the defense from stacking the line.
The first quarter mirrored the Huskies’ domination of the Apple Cup under fourth-year UW coach Chris Petersen. They rolled up 90 yards on 20 snaps while limiting WSU to 24 yards on 11.
When Browning’s quarterback-sneak touchdown extended the lead to 14-0 in the first minute of the second quarter, the potential of another Huskies blowout loomed in the cold, wet air. And when Gaskin capped a 93-yard touchdown drive to make the score 21-0, the blowout was in full swing.
The dynamic start couldn’t have been scripted much better for Washington, but two injuries prevented the first half from qualifying as perfect.
On what would become his last punt return in Husky Stadium, the electrifying Pettis was tackled at the UW 18 and stayed down at the UW 18 with an injured left ankle. A few minutes later, Coleman limped to the sideline and joined Pettis on the bench.
That two of the Huskies most respected seniors failed to survive the first quarter — on Senior Day, no less — was a disappointment but not a debacle. With two prominent play-makers suddenly absent, the task of attacking the Cougars was turned over to Gaskin, who took the ball and ran (and ran, and ran) with it.
At 5-feet-10 and 191 pounds, the junior from Lynnwood does not bring to mind an unstoppable force. But he’s durable, shifty and hits the hole with purpose, virtues nicely suited to shred a WSU defense that relies more on speed and quickness than size and strength.
Gaskin finished the first half with 114 yards on 16 carries, averaging 7.1 yards per rushing attempt. When an offense is benefiting from low-risk, high-reward production like that, it doesn’t make sense to put the ball in the air.
As for the Cougars? Faced with a 34-0 deficit midway through the third quarter, Falk kept dropping back and throwing passes to places the defense anticipated.
With their hope of advancing to the Pac-12 Championship game pretty much shot before halftime, the Cougars’ ambitions shifted to the quite more modest accomplishment of scoring points.
Conventional wisdom suggested Browning and Falk were headed for a shootout. In lieu of a shootout, it became Falk’s challenge to avoid a shutout.
If you didn’t see any of this coming, join the crowd.