Think back to when this season began, on the blue turf at Boise State, where the Washington Huskies could hardly run the ball or protect their true freshman quarterback.
Did you think they looked like a team that might achieve the six victories necessary to qualify for a bowl game?
For as many frustrating moments as this season provided — losses to Oregon, Utah and Arizona State might still linger in the psyche of UW’s most ardent supporters — the Huskies were still able to extend it into the holidays, and they have a chance to clinch a winning record on Saturday afternoon in the heart of Texas.
Err, sorry — the Heart of Dallas. That’s the name of the bowl game, anyway — it’s sponsored by Zaxby’s, a popular chicken joint down here — and it features Washington against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, two programs that have never played each other. It will be a day of firsts, in fact: neither team has ever played a game at Cotton Bowl Stadium, and neither team has played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which debuted as the TicketCity Bowl in 2011.
If the Huskies can beat the Golden Eagles — champions of the Conference USA’s West division — they will finish with a winning record for the sixth consecutive season. And while a just-barely-above-.500 mark would typically be a bare-minimum expectation at UW, the uncertainty surrounding this team’s preseason prospects would seem to make it more of an accomplishment.
And while UW’s young roster likely benefited from the extra practice granted by the Huskies’ bowl eligibility, coach Chris Petersen has said a few times that he’s mostly just happy that his team gets to play another game — especially after ending the regular season with a 45-10 victory over Washington State, one week after a 52-7 thrashing of Oregon State.
“That’s what these guys need to do, and that’s what they live to do,” Petersen said during a Wednesday press conference in Dallas. “They work year-round to play these games. And not that we don’t need to get a lot better — we do. And our guys practice hard. But that’s what I was so excited about, not necessarily extra practice time, but a chance to get to play in a place like this at the Cotton Bowl that’s such a historic venue with this history and tradition against a really good opponent.”
That opponent, Southern Miss, seems pleased with the matchup. The Golden Eagles are making their first bowl appearance since 2011, and Saturday’s game will be their third this season against a team from a Power 5 conference. They lost the first two — to Mississippi State and Nebraska — but won seven of their eight games against Conference USA opponents before losing to Western Kentucky in the C-USA championship game.
This game against UW, USM coach Todd Monken said, will serve as “a measuring stick.” The Golden Eagles boast one of the nation’s most prolific offenses — they average 40.6 points and 519.8 yards per game — but haven’t faced a defense as stout as Washington’s this season.
“We targeted this game from a few weeks out that we wanted to play here,” Monken said earlier this week. “We wanted to play against a really good opponent. We got that. I’ve got a lot of respect for Chris and what he’s done, starting at Boise and then, obviously, taking over at Washington. They’ve got a really good football team, fun to watch.”
For freshmen like quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin — and the numerous other freshmen and sophomores who played important roles for UW this season — Saturday represents another chance to build game experience heading into 2016.
For seniors like Taniela Tupou and Siosifa Tufunga, both of whom spoke at Wednesday’s press conference, this bowl game is the last time they’ll take the field in a Washington uniform.
“It will be a wonderful place,” Tupou said, “for both of us to finish our college careers.”
Heart of Dallas Bowl
UW (6-6) vs. Southern Mississippi (9-4)
11:20 a.m., Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas
TV: ESPN. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM
The series: The teams have never met.
What to watch: This is a matchup of one of the nation’s top offenses against the Pac-12’s top defense, which might have been why the bowl folks chose to pit these teams against each other. … Southern Miss moves the football in a variety of ways. Starting QB Nick Mullens won C-USA Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for more than 4,000 yards with 36 touchdowns. The Golden Eagles have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers — Jalen Richard and Ito Smith — and also have a receiver, Michael Thomas, who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards (he’s got 1,201, on 62 catches, with 12 touchdowns). … The USM defense also has some productive players. Junior linebacker D’Nerius Antoine led the team in tackles with 93, and the Golden Eagles have two players who boast double-digit tackle-for-loss totals — senior linebacker Brian Anderson with 13.5, and junior defensive lineman Dylan Bradley with 11.5. … The Golden Eagles lead the country in scrimmage plays longer than 20 yards with 102. … A UW spokesperson said earlier this week that the school had distributed about 1,400 tickets for the game. … The weather should be interesting. Weather.com projects a forecast of temperatures in the mid-70s with scattered thunderstorms during the game. … UW coach Chris Petersen holds a 5-3 record in bowl games. His last win came in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl, when he coached Boise State to a victory over the Huskies.
The pick: Washington 35, Southern Miss 20
3 — Jake Browning, QB (6-2, 206, fr.): 2,671 passing yards, 16 TDs, 10 INTs
9 — Myles Gaskin, RB (5-9, 192, fr.): Already holds UW freshman rushing record
72 — Trey Adams, LT (6-7, 302, fr.): Missed Apple Cup due to injury
41 — Travis Feeney, LB (6-4, 226, r-sr.): Last game as a Husky
9 — Nick Mullens, QB (6-1, 196, jr.): 4,145 passing yards, 36 TDs
30 — Jalen Richard, RB (5-8, 210, sr.): 1,098 yards rushing, 14 TDs
25 — Ito Smith, RB (5-9, 195, so.): 1,088 yards rushing, 8 TDs
12 — D’Nerius Antoine, LB (6-0, 215, jr.): 93 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss