If you think it rains hard in Seattle, you should have seen the Cotton Bowl stadium on Saturday afternoon. Not long after the Heart of Dallas Bowl concluded, the sky opened and spit forth a storm that doused the Dallas metro area. It included a tornado warning — and that was no joke, because the thing actually touched down in a few locations — and enough thunder and lightning to convince locals to seek cover.
That was the scene, too, as the buses transporting the Washington Huskies football team drove away from this ancient venue, the tornado siren singing as they left for the airport, where a charter jet would eventually take them back to Seattle.
But escaping the storm was not the team’s most coveted victory on Saturday afternoon.
The Huskies defeated Southern Mississippi, 44-31, to take home the Heart of Dallas Bowl trophy, using a career day by freshman tailback Myles Gaskin — the game’s MVP — to blow past their high-scoring Conference USA opponent.
Gaskin, who already held UW’s freshman rushing record, capped his stellar debut season with a 181-yard, 4-touchdown performance before a crowd of only 20,229. But he brought those few in the stands to their feet a handful of times, particularly when he cut back and sprinted 86 yards for a tiebreaking touchdown late in the third quarter.
Southern Miss (9-5) had just tied the game following a 57-yard scoring drive — a disappointing development for the Huskies, who led 21-10 in the first half and had a few chances to truly separate themselves from the Golden Eagles — before Gaskin put UW back ahead with that one play.
“I was running to the right and kind of walled off and, shoot, got turned around,” Gaskin said. “And when I saw some space, I took off. And I saw their two safeties kind of hawking me. So I put on the jets and tried to get away.”
He got away, and he got away again two possessions later, scoring on a 13-yard run that gave the Huskies a 41-24 lead with 7 minutes and 53 seconds to go in the game, putting it out of reach.
“The Myles Gaskin show,” UW quarterback Jake Browning called it.
Gaskin finishes the season with 1,302 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, both UW freshman records.
The Golden Eagles did score a touchdown on their next possession, a 27-yard pass from quarterback Nick Mullens to star receiver Mike Thomas, who finished with nine receptions for 190 yards and two scores. But UW recovered the ensuing onside kick and killed nearly the entire clock before tacking on a late field goal.
Gaskin also scored on runs of one and two yards in the first half, during which time Browning completed 15-of-21 passes for 201 yards. He finished 23 of 34 for 284 yards, and the Huskies totaled 580 offensive yards, a season-high. They also scored at least 44 points in each of their final three games.
So the Huskies finish 2015 with a 7-6 overall record — their sixth consecutive season with an above-.500 mark — and venture into the offseason with a distinctly different vibe than they did a year ago.
After finishing 8-6 after a discouraging bowl loss in 2014, the Huskies knew they were also losing several key defensive players and offensive linemen. This year, they went out winners, and they did it with a promising core of freshmen and sophomores.
“It's tremendous,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “It's awesome to send out the seniors with a win. And it helps, and you feel like you're going in the right direction. It does feel a heck of a lot different than it did last year.”
The Huskies scored with relative ease on three of their first four possessions. Gaskin capped a 63-yard drive with the first of his four touchdown runs, a 2-yard score that gave UW a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
After USM answered the Huskies’ first score with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Mullens to Thomas, Gaskin capped another steady drive with a short scoring plunge, this one a 1-yard run to put UW ahead 14-7.
UW led 21-10 after senior receiver Jaydon Mickens took an end-around handoff 29 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter — he also led the team with 95 receiving yards on eight catches — and the Huskies appeared on their way to a comfortable victory.
But things changed late in the second quarter, when USM faked a punt on 4th-and-6 from its own 25-yard line. A pass by punter Tyler Sarrazin to defensive back Curtis Mikell gained 22 yards, and the Golden Eagles scored four plays later to trim the deficit to 21-17 at halftime.
A fumble by UW receiver Marvin Hall led to USM’s game-tying touchdown late in the third quarter, a 2-yard run by tailback Ito Smith. But Gaskin propelled the Huskies back in front on the next play from scrimmage, the Huskies forced USM’s offense three-and-out, and the Golden Eagles didn’t really have a chance after that.
After a season of frequent growing pains, losses they felt could have been wins, two steps forward and too many steps back, the Huskies finished it how they wanted.
“I don't think we can keep saying we're just a young team anymore,” Petersen said. “We've played a lot of football. You get through game five, six, seven, that's a lot of reps. So I don't think we're a young team anymore. We got better through the latter part of the season, and we're really proud.”