John McGrath

John McGrath: Huskies, Cougars win bowl game on same day for first time

Washington Huskies players, left, and Washington State Cougars players, right, celebrate their wins in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and Sun Bowl, respectively.
Washington Huskies players, left, and Washington State Cougars players, right, celebrate their wins in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and Sun Bowl, respectively. Olympia

Saturday turned out to be a milestone afternoon for the Washington and Washington State football programs.

The Huskies and Cougars hoisted bowl trophies on the same day, an unprecedented occurrence. Until Saturday, the teams never had won bowl games in the same season, much less the same day.

No matter that there was a tornado watch at the Heart of Dallas Bowl, or that it snowed at the Sun Bowl. No matter that tickets for the games had the approximate street value of month-old fruitcake. No matter that the simultaneously televised games challenged the attention spans of those of us unable to concentrate on sporting events at the same time.

(Or maybe this was just a problem for me. The wiring in my mind isn’t sophisticated enough to pay attention to a football game while another football game is in view. As Russell Wilson likes to say, I take ’em one at a time, because if I don’t, I end up sensing I’m the lone lifeguard at a children’s wading pool.)

In any case, the Huskies and Cougars ended up winning within two minutes of each other, another rarity. Had Miami not called a needless timeout with 34 seconds remaining in the Sun Bowl, the intrastate rivals might have concluded their seasons in a photo finish.

As it turned out, Washington’s 44-31 victory over Southern Mississippi was official at 2:56 p.m., while Washington State, 20-14 winners, didn’t douse Gatorade on the cold shoulders of head coach Mike Leach until 2:58.

The rest of the world will little note, nor long remember, the Huskies and Cougars teaming up in a Texas two-step. By the time the first national semifinal is played on New Year’s Eve, every bowl game that preceded it will resemble a three-round bout on the undercard.

But don’t underestimate the momentum UW and WSU generated Saturday. Take the Huskies, whose record fell to 4-6 after a second-half cratering at Arizona State on Nov. 14. Since then, they outscored the opposition, 141-48, to finish 7-6.

“The most important thing is, we won our last three games,” head coach Chris Petersen said on his postgame radio show. “We’re learning and we’re building.”

When broadcaster Bob Rondeau mentioned to Petersen how the Heart of Dallas Bowl victory proved to be the difference between a 6-7 record and 7-6, the coach chuckled.

“The record is what it is, neither one sounds that good to me,” said Petersen. “But what does sound good to me is that we won our last three, we played hard and we’re making progress on offense. All those things are encouraging."

Encouraging, too, is a roster rich with underclassmen. Among the playmakers most responsible for the 580-yard gashing of Southern Mississippi, everybody returns in 2016 but senior wide receiver Jaydon Mickens.

It seems unfathomable that the Huskies failed to score an offensive touchdown in the season opener at Boise State, where they were held to 11 first downs and 179 yards of offense. Then again, it seems unfathomable that two of the most glaring position quandaries once included quarterback and running back — quandaries solved by the dynamic duo of true freshmen Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin.

Browning completed 23 of 34 passes for 284 yards Saturday, and yet he wasn’t the most impressive true freshman in his own backfield. That distinction belonged to Gaskin, who scored four touchdowns and came within a yard of a fifth.

Speaking of true freshmen, Cougars quarterback Luke Falk earned Sun Bowl MVP honors with a passing performance — 29 of 53 for 295 yards and two touchdowns, no interceptions — that would look impressive on a clear day. But amid the blizzardy conditions of El Paso?

Remarkable.

Like the Huskies, all systems are go for a WSU team that began the season with a home-game clunker against Portland State. The defeat appeared to represent a historically low point for a program not unfamiliar with low points, but the Cougars ended up 9-4.

The 2016 forecast is calling for Washington and Washington State to emerge as co-favorites in the Pac-12 North. If the power struggle is decided at Pullman on the day after Thanksgiving, in the Apple Cup, feel free to identify Saturday afternoon as the source of the struggle.

At 2:56, the Huskies assured themselves of a winning season. At 2:58, the Cougars assured themselves of a Top-25 ranking in the final polls.

These teams are on course for an epic collision next November.

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