The Washington football team, for the second consecutive weekend, made a personnel move that had everybody talking.
This time, it was a good thing. On Saturday night at a wet and windy Husky Stadium, all-time leading rusher Myles Gaskin returned to his rightful place in the lineup after missing two games, rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, and helped the Huskies turn back Stanford 27-23.
Gaskin’s presence went a long way to making everyone—especially Jake Browning—forget the turmoil of last week, where the Huskies temporarily benched the four-year starting quarterback in favor of redshirt freshman Jake Haener, in just long enough to throw an interception for a game-deciding touchdown, and were upset by California 12-10.
Browning, speaking for the first time since the upheaval in Berkeley, acknowledged that he met with Huskies coach Chris Petersen during the week, hashed things out and charted a new course going forward.
“I think anybody in that situation would have been pretty pissed off, and I was, and I’m not going to lie about that,” Browning said. “I was pretty frustrated. I decided to move on and I wasn’t going to let it affect our season.”
For a half, the Huskies (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) looked highly focused again and nearly at full strength as they rushed out to a 21-0 lead. Browning was responsible for a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, scampering in on a 2-yard run and hitting senior tight end Drew Sample with an 11-yard scoring pass, on the UW’s first two series.
Gaskin, who has battled shoulder issues for nearly a month and looked in pain on one occasion against Stanford, was ready to play from the beginning. He ran for 9 yards on the Huskies’ opening play from scrimmage. He patiently picked his way through the line in the second quarter to score standing up from 6 yards out, giving his team its three-touchdown lead. He surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark midway the third quarter by bursting 37 yards up the left sideline and nearly breaking it.
“It’s good to have No. 9 back—he’s a game-changer,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
Besides Gaskin, the Huskies also regained the limited services of promising sophomore tight end Hunter Bryant, who played for the first time since last January’s Fiesta Bowl against Penn State, caught his first pass in 13 months and received a warm ovation.
“The more guys we can have, the better,” Browning said.
That said, Stanford (5-4, 3-3) wasn’t going to roll over and made a game out of it to the final play. Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello, despite having his top receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside carted away with a serious ankle or foot injury, brought his team back by lighting up a short-handed Huskies secondary.
Three of the five UW starters who drop back in coverage were missing at the end. Senior cornerback Jordan Miller and junior nickel back Myles Bryant didn’t dress for the game, presumably both injured, while senior strong safety JoJo McIntosh was ejected in the second quarter for targeting.
Staring out at back-ups, Costello completed 29 of 43 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns. He pulled Stanford within four when he drilled a 33-yard TD pass to Trenton Irwin with 3:24 left to play. The comeback, however, was muted when Collin Riccitelli missed the extra point, pushing it wide right. That changed everything coming down the stretch.
The Cardinal reached the UW 34 in the final seconds, but they had to seek a go-ahead touchdown instead of a tying field goal, which was too much to ask on this chilly night. Huskies junior free safety Taylor Rapp, one of two veterans still holding down the secondary, intercepted Costello’s desperate throw into the end zone as the clock ran out.
Rapp had one of three UW pass thefts, doubling the team’s season total. Sophomore cornerback Byron Murphy and senior defensive lineman Greg Gaines came up with the others. Gaines, all 6-foot-2 and 316 pounds of him, dove to grab a pass tipped by a blitzing Rapp and registered his first career interception at any level of football shortly after informing missing cornerback Myles Bryant he was going to make a big play in his absence.
“I said, ‘I’m going to cover for you dude,’ ” Gaines said. “I got a pick for him.”
While highly effective in the first half, Browning and the UW offense bogged down again after intermission. The weather didn’t help. The Cardinal became more determined. The Huskies chalked up only a pair of Peyton Henry field goals, coming from 22 and 38 yards, as momentum shifted, making the crowd uneasy.
“We were able to do just enough to hold on,” Browning said. “It’s kind of a relief.”
Obviously it was comforting for the Washington quarterback to take all of the offensive snaps, too. He and the Huskies still have a lot to play for, needing closing wins over Oregon State and rival Washington State to reach the Pac-12 championship game for the second time in three seasons. Alamo Bowl and Peach Bowl scouts were in the press box for this match-up, scouting out potential postseason candidates.
Browning, like him or not, showed resiliency leading up to and finishing out this game. He hung in there following his embarrassing demotion at Cal and he stayed resolute as Stanford mounted its comeback. While he doesn’t always stand patiently in the pocket as he should and had a couple passes sail on him in the wind, the Huskies quarterback to his credit demonstrated leadership when needed and didn’t let his ego run wild.
“You can question a lot of things about me, but I’m pretty mentally tough and I’m not going to let anything shake me,” Browning said. “I tried to handle it as maturely as possible so it didn’t turn into some huge drama.
“I figured if we won this game, everybody would feel a lot better.”
From the looks on the faces of his coach and his teammates, Browning was right about that.