Although the Washington Huskies won’t learn about the specifics of their postseason invitation until next Sunday, the announcement likely will induce a groan from fans not eager to travel 2,000 miles for a low-profile bowl game played on Dec. 26.
Nobody’s pulse rate soars at the sound of the Heart of Dallas Bowl or the Independence Bowl. At least the organizers of these events had the wisdom to not include “Classic” in the title.
But as the late Frosty Westering was fond of saying, you make the big time where you are — even if that happens to be in the northeastern Louisiana city of Shreveport on the day after Christmas.
Huskies coach Chris Petersen requires no such pep talk.
“It means a lot,” he said Friday of the bowl bid his team clinched with an emphatic victory over No. 20 Washington State. “Not only going, but winning. That is something we will start talking about during the next day or two. That is on the docket. Wherever we end up, we go and play well in a bowl game.”
“I am excited for these guys because we have kind of had our backs to the wall. It has been a battle all season long, but I do think there has been progress.”
I’ll go ahead and make the case that wherever the Huskies are destined to spend Christmas, the bowl looms as the most important assignment of Petersen’s two-year career at Washington.
Between last week’s 52-7 pummeling of Oregon State and the 45-10 blowout in the Apple Cup, the Huskies combined to outscore their last two opponents 97-17. Finishing the season on a three-game roll not only secures a winning record of 7-6, but gives the returning players palpable momentum heading into 2016.
On the flip side, losing reinforces the suspicion Petersen, who built a reputation as a mid-major star at Boise State, might not have the gravitas needed in a power conference. You’ll recall how former Boise State coaches Dirk Koetter (fired after a six-year record of 40-34 at Arizona State) and Dan Hawkins (fired after a five-year record of 19-39 at Colorado) faced similar struggles adjusting to the fast lane.
Thanks to the gradual maturation of true freshman quarterback Jake Browning and a defense forced to replace three All-America selections in 2014, the Huskies who dominated WSU little resembled the Huskies who opened the season with a 16-13 defeat at Boise State. For that matter, they little resembled the Huskies who blew a 17-0 lead at Arizona State two weeks ago.
Progress for a football team rarely is a simple, uninterrupted advancement from bad to good to great. The process has to allow for some ebbs and flows. Consider Washington’s five-game stretch between Oct. 17 and Nov. 14: The Huskies lost four of the five, but sandwiched in the middle of the slump was an uber-impressive 49-3 thumping of Arizona.
An up-and-down season, to be sure, but now there’s a chance to close it with the kind of stretch run Petersen should recognize. Last year, the Huskies’ 8-4 record earned them an invitation to the Cactus Bowl, where they were installed as 6.5-point favorites to beat a 6-6 Oklahoma State team enduring the ultimate up-and-down season.
The Cowboys had to get past intrastate rival Oklahoma merely to be considered for a bowl. While Washington’s NFL-bound players apparently regarded the Cactus Bowl as a warmup exercise for the predraft combine, Oklahoma State saw Jan. 2 as a chance to deliver a statement: It’s not how you start the season, but how you finish.
Oklahoma State brought an attitude of MMA cage fighters onto the field, preventing the Huskies from earning a first down until 9:53 remained in the second quarter. By halftime, the score was 24-0.
“It was the best three weeks of preparation for a bowl that we’ve ever had — including the year we won the Fiesta Bowl,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy gushed after his team’s 30-22 victory. “These last two games are going to put a real good taste in the mouth of anybody that loves OSU football and OSU university. Makes a big difference.”
Oklahoma State parlayed its late-season surge from a year ago into a 2015 season that found the Cowboys undefeated through 10 games. The big difference between flailing mediocrity and national powerhouse turned out to be three weeks of exquisite preparation for a seemingly inconsequential bowl game.
A shrug of the shoulders and a roll of the eyes figure to be common reactions to the news the Huskies are heading to a bowl only two kinds of observers — casual gamblers and hard-core gamblers — eagerly anticipate.
But Chris Petersen also cares. If his team wins, everything it has accomplished in 2015 is validated, and all systems are go for a breakout season in 2016.
Besides, a trip to a bowl game scheduled on the day after Christmas isn’t the worst way for a college football coach to spend the holidays.
The worst way for a college football coach to spend the holidays is in front of the fireplace at home, listening to the logs crackle and willing to give anything for that lovely sound to be replaced by the noise of 35,000 fans in Shreveport.