John McGrath

John McGrath: Browning and Falk hurl their way into the Heisman conversation

Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3), scores the first touchdown of the game against OregonSaturday in Eugene, Ore.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning (3), scores the first touchdown of the game against OregonSaturday in Eugene, Ore. The Associated Press

After watching Jake Browning and Luke Falk put together passing numbers straight outta Sillyville over the weekend, something occurred to me.

When Washington travels to Washington State for the Apple Cup on Nov. 25, two trophies could be at stake. One is distinguished by an ornament shaped as a piece of fruit.

The other is a bronze depiction of a player cradling the ball inside his left arm while extending his right arm to fend off a tackler. It’s known as the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious individual award in American sports.

Because of geography and the late kickoffs associated with that geography, Browning and Falk remain long shots to finish as finalists. But there’s half a season of football left on the schedule, and the Heisman race is as fluid as a game of musical chairs.

A week ago this past Thursday, for instance, versatile Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey was a watch-list fixture. Widely recognized as a 2015 finalist, McCaffrey benefited from the Cardinal’s No. 7 national ranking.

That was before Washington smothered McCaffrey in a Friday night blowout at Husky Stadium, and before the Cougars forced McCaffrey to the sidelines in a similar pummeling at Stanford. In a span of eight days, McCaffrey was reduced from Heisman co-favorite to Heisman afterthought.

Meanwhile, Washington’s Browning vaulted into contention with the kind of performance that tends to open the eyes of East Coast voters who might have been asleep as the Huskies were accumulating points in the manner of an arcade machine. Browning threw six touchdown passes against Oregon, and ran for another two scores.

It wasn’t all that long ago — 15 months — when Huskies coach Chris Petersen couldn’t identify a first-team quarterback. Incumbent starter Cyler Miles had quit football with a hip ailment, requiring Petersen to hold a competition that included fourth-year junior Jeff Lindquist and two freshmen, K.J. Carta-Samuels and Browning.

“Everybody has to get better,” Petersen said during the Pac-12’s annual preseason media gathering in Los Angeles. “That is the bottom line, from Jeff to Jake. Everybody needs to get better. That guy you can see going and getting better, that’s probably going to be the guy.”

That guy turned out to be Browning, an accurate passer with spot-on touch and a surprisingly nimble scrambler out of the pocket. Washington’s promotions department didn’t tout him as a preseason Heisman candidate in 2016 — with a mere dozen games of experience, a campaign built around a true sophomore seemed presumptuous — and that’s just as well.

Elaborate Heisman campaigns have a checkered tradition. Voters informed about the superior talent of a selected player tend to ask: “OK, so what has he done lately?” — putting pressure on the selected player to do something extraordinary.

Unburdened by the gimmicks and hype of an ad campaign, the low-key Browning has been liberated from the distraction associated with a Heisman Trophy front-runner.

“For me, it’s just going in and operating,” says the quarterback whose touchdown-to-interception ratio is a ridiculously impressive 23-2. “Don’t try to do too much. Take care of the ball.”

If there’s a Heisman Trophy in Browning’s future, something tells me it won’t be celebrated with the gaudy victory lap that turned Johnny Manziel’s mixed-up life into easy punch lines at a comedy club.

Midway through his second season, Browning has established himself as among the premier quarterbacks in college football — and yet, he might rank as the second-best college quarterback in the state of Washington, behind the Cougars’ Falk.

Falk’s four-touchdown, 357-yard passing effort at Stanford was remarkable in its own right. That he was the victim of a helmet-to-helmet spearing by Stanford safety Justin Reid, midway through the third quarter, underscored his resilience.

Two early-season defeats eliminated the Cougars from the national-championship picture, but after successive kick-butt victories over former conference heavyweights Oregon and Stanford, it’s not unreasonable to see WSU winding up in the Pac-12 championship game.

Which brings me back to the future: The Apple Cup, with a 12:30 p.m. kickoff on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Heisman Trophy voters on the East Coast will be able to watch two elite quarterbacks put on a show.

The possibility that both Browning and Falk will earn an invitation to New York City as Heisman Trophy finalists is zero, but don’t discount the chance that one or the other could go.

As somebody who’s been privileged to cast a Heisman vote for several years, I try to give the process the diligence it is due. Still, I can’t lie: My preference is for the hand that rocks the cradle in late November.

Jake Browning? Luke Falk?

I’m dreading the winter, when I’ll have four wet jackets on the coat rack and six shoes drenched from sidewalk puddles.

But I can’t wait for that Thanksgiving-weekend showdown in Pullman.

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