Dallas was more like the Heart of Hell after the game, as tornado alerts interrupted Washington’s post-game press conference. Gaskin handled the chaos like he had handled the Golden Eagles all afternoon; with a slight smile, some patience, and then a quick response.
“We just really came in this game, trying to get all the seniors on their way out and give them all the love and support we could through the game,” Gaskin said, his trademark deference to team on full display.
Senior receiver Jaydon Mickens, to Gaskin’s right, showed how much the win meant for him.
“When I lost last year, it felt terrible, seniors crying,” Mickens said. “Still talk about it this day. Man, we lost that game! Man, we lost that game! But now we have something to talk about at a 20-year reunion.”
It was 20 years since Washington had seen a performance quite like Gaskin’s. His four scores were the most by a Husky since Corey Dillon scored five against UCLA in 1996. And Gaskin’s 181 was the most by a freshman - true or redshirt - since Joe Steele ran for 157 yards against Oregon. In 1976.
“When he gets the ball, everything goes in slow motion,” Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen said, more than happy to talk about Gaskin’s game-defining 86-yard run that broke Southern Miss’s heart after they had just tied the game late in the third quarter. “He hops and hides, and you're going, "Oh, are you going to go somewhere?" And then you look up and you've got five or six yards. Those legs, they have more in them than you think. They can go. That's what happens.”
Petersen wasn’t even sure Myles Gaskin was going to play this season. For the 5-foot-9, 190-pound freshman tailback from Seattle’s O’Dea High School, playing time wasn’t a sure thing. And after the Boise State game, it still wasn’t written in stone that Gaskin was going to be much more than a change-up, a player to spell Dwayne Washington or Lavon Coleman.
At Boise State, Gaskin had five yards on five carries - and calls for keeping his redshirt on were already being made. But late in the Sacramento State game in week two with the game already out of reach, Myles showed what he was made of with a 78-yard dash around the right side of the UW line where he juked a defender at the line of scrimmage, found an opening, and then sprinted to daylight where he hit the end zone a full 15 yards ahead of any Sac State player.
“Yeah, he's been amazing since we got him,” Petersen said, matter-of-factly.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon in Dallas, and Gaskin could be seen running wild on the Cotton Bowl turf, cutting and slicing his way to a Heart of Dallas Bowl record for yards and touchdowns. His 1302 rushing yards in 2015 was good enough to be the eighth most productive ever by a Washington back, and obviously the most ever by a true freshman. Rich Alexis had 816 yards in 2000, the last year the Huskies made it to the post-season Pasadena.
And true to his fast finishes, 170 of Gaskin’s 181 yards came in the second half of the game. And while he was making Southern Miss miss, he was bringing back to life another top bowl effort - Bishop Sankey’s 205 yards against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. That game propelled Sankey toward a 2013 season that would see him break nearly every single-season rushing record in Washington history.
Could history be repeating itself in front of our eyes?
“The offense, the rest of the guys it's a team effort,” Gaskin humbly when asked how he gained all those yards. “All 11 guys need to be all in. Like Coach says, everybody says, we're all in. So it starts with just everybody else. And we have got to keep on pushing, keep on pushing. And that's where it gets you.”
Gaskin’s year wasn’t the only one of note on offense for the Huskies.
Fellow true frosh Jake Browning threw for 284 yards on 23 completions and no interceptions. He added 28 key yards rushing to extend drives.
“I thought he was really efficient in the first half, 15-21 in the first half,” Washington Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “We had a couple throws we could have gotten but he made a couple plays with his feet that were huge for us too in converting drives. I thought he was pretty solid today.”
Browning orchestrated an offensive performance that tallied 580 yards against the Golden Eagles, the most yards generated all season. It capped off a run by the offense where they really ramped things up through November and into December. If you include the Arizona win on Halloween, the Huskies have averaged 483.5 yards and 38.3 points per game. Those numbers would currently be good enough for 22nd in total offense and 17th in scoring offense.
Not bad for a group led by a true freshman at quarterback (Browning), true freshman at running back (Gaskin), and a true freshman leading the way at left tackle for the vast majority of the year (Trey Adams) - a group widely considered to be not just one of the youngest in the Pac-12, but one of the youngest in all of Division-1 football. The Huskies lose Mickens, as well as Marvin Hall, tight end Josh Perkins and center Sisosifa Tufunga, but when looking at their bowl two deeps there were more underclassmen listed on offense (16) than upperclassmen (10).
And that’s why Washington fans should be giddy about 2016, and not just because of the offense. The Pac-12 leading Husky defense returns seven starters and 23 players listed on their defensive two-deeps. In 2016, UW returns 104 of 143 total starts on offense, or 73 percent. On defense, the Huskies return 89 total starts, or 62 percent. So overall? Washington will return over two-thirds of their total 2015 starts.
“We kept getting better every week,” said Washington Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. “They came with that mentality to get better every week. When we hit a low spot and we lost they didn’t dwell on it. They went to the next game and kept getting better. It’s a credit to the guys and their toughness and their fight through all that. I really feel like…all bowl games are like that. We got the W so we’re happy about that, but I know defensively I know some guys feel like we could have played better.”
That’s at once a scary, but pleasing thought for Washington fans. After enduring a tough season bedding in a lot of newcomers, that work should pay dividends next year. We saw it take place with the secondary this year, and now that work should show itself team-wide.
The future is bright, and the foundation has been laid. Now it’s time for Washington to take that next step back to national relevancy.
“I think we're making progress,” said Petersen. “We've been proud of these guys all year long. I think we have really hard-fought wins, and we had some hard-fought losses. We've been in most every game, even the games we've lost. And it's been really frustrating to all of us coming in on Sunday and knowing we're that close on a lot of these games. But these guys never, never, ever backed down. They worked their tail off. Nobody ever pointed fingers on either side of the ball, anything like that. So, to me, that was a lot of progress being made just in terms of just feeling that they're doing the right things. And, if we can continue to keep fighting and do the right things, we will get better.
“And so I think that there's been a lot of progress made this year.”