The Huskies started out as if their hearts were left in Autzen Stadium, but rallied behind a stout defense to prevail over Colorado despite the absence of rushing leader Myles Gaskin.
It’s easier to find to a Husky vacationing in Pullman than to find one who will admit to an emotional hangover from the overtime loss in Eugene the previous Saturday. But after falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter Saturday at Husky Stadium to Colorado, and struggling to a 14-13 halftime lead, it was plain some Washington hearts were left broken in the Willamette Valley.
So too, with at least one body. RB Myles Gaskin missed the first game of his stellar four-year career, a shoulder problem that bothered him for at least the past two games rendering him inert.
“The whole game was maybe different than we anticipated,” coach Chris Petersen said. “It felt at times like we made it harder on ourselves.”
It wasn’t as if they didn’t compensate for playing without Gaskin, school career rushing leader, for the first time in 48 games. They ran for 201 yards.
But it wasn’t until the final four minutes that they made it harder on Colorado, an 84-yard drive finishing with a gutsy fourth-and-five play for a 26-yard touchdown. The score made for a 27-13 final (box) that looked more impressive than it was.
The Huskies beat a 5-2 Colorado team missing its best player, injured WR Laviska Shenault, that is not as good as its record, owing to a weak schedule. The Buffs have always been something of a UW patsy — their most recent win in the series was nine games ago, in the 1996 Holiday Bowl.
At 6-2, the Huskies have established that they are a good team, a top-20 team, but not a team built to dominate a Pac-12 schedule. They make just enough mistakes to keep middling teams such as Arizona State, UCLA and the Buffs thinking they are a big play away. Or in the case of the Oregon Ducks, proving they are one play better.
Against Colorado, they gave up an opening-possession touchdown, then allowed two field goals the rest of the way, holding the Buffs to a season-low 263 yards. But Colorado stayed in range despite being stopped on two fourth downs and 10 of 13 third downs. The UW offense couldn’t pull away.
“Kinda one of those games,” Petersen said. “We grinded it out in the fourth quarter and made it happen.”
The find grind was a dandy, however. Up 20-13 with 3:57 to go, the Huskies were fourth-and-five at the Colorado 26. They skipped over a chance to let freshman PK Peyton Henry put away a game for the second week in a row, and went for six.
Given the struggles of the Buffs’ offense, the bet was on the defense. Still, failure meant the Buffs were a play away from a tie with a 17-point favorite.
QB Jake Browning saw the Buffs were loaded up with a blitz, so he checked to the counter-punch — a quick slant pass to WR Aaron Fuller, one-on-one with a safety.
“I just held onto the ball long enough for Aaron to get open, gave him a strike-point ball and he was able to get in,” Browning said. “That was huge.”
Fuller, who earlier in the game made a spectacular one-handed grab over the middle for a first down, was expecting both blitz and ball.
“They’d given us looks like that a few times in the red zone so it was definitely something that we could expect on fourth and short,” he said. “I knew I had to give it my best release, since I was the first read on the play.”
Fuller went past the safety nearly untouched and sailed into the end zone.
The rest of the game was a little harder, but Washington stayed in control using the ground game.
They covered for Gaskin with substantial contributions from three sophomore running backs: 78 yards from Salvon Ahmed, 59 from Sean McGew, who started, and 35 from Kamari Pleasant.
“We have real good confidence in the other backs,” Petersen said. “We ran the ball pretty well.”
The severity of injury to Gaskin isn’t known, because Petersen, part of the paranoid pack of NCAA coaches, refuses to disclose. But shoulder injuries to backs don’t go away quickly, and sometimes require surgery. That would be a profound shame for Gaskin, who gave serious thought to turning pro before deciding to risk a senior season.
His return only heightened the regard in which he is held by teammates.
“Myles is and will always be a key part of our offense,” said RT Kaleb McGary. “He’s an excellent tailback, and an even better guy. Of course, he’s the guy we want in our backfield as often as possible.
“I think we have a great group of O-linemen who can make it happen even if he’s not there.
Hopefully, he breathes a little easier tonight knowing it’s OK for him to take a rest. He’s a tough dude. I’ve seen him take some shots that would be tough for us 300-pounders to take. He always gets right back up regardless.”
The No. 2 back, Ahmed, didn’t enhance his stature with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Following a seven-yard spring around right end that provided UW’s first TD in the second quarter, Ahmed celebrated with a throat-slash gesture that long ago was deemed verboten by NCAA rules. The 15-yard penalty was enforced on the subsequent kickoff, and the Buffs turned the improved field position into a field goal.
Petersen benched Ahmed into third quarter and vowed to invoke the mandatory 500-pushup penalty for unsportsmanlike gestures: “Might increase,” he said.
Petersen seemed a little stunned, as he was two years ago in Eugene, when Browning taunted an Oregon defender by pointing a finger as he entered the end zone.
“Sometimes these things are sorta shocking to me,” he said. “That’s not him. He’s one of the greatest guys on our team — what? what did he do?
“The emotions of the game can change things, we know that. Everyone’s emotional. Gotta play with passion.”
Gotta play with smarts too. The margins for the Huskies these days are smaller.