The Huskies look to close out 2015 with their third consecutive win in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against Southern Miss on Saturday.
DALLAS — Oddsmakers were skeptical of this Washington Huskies team before the season. Many others were too — appropriately so, it seemed at the time.
When the Huskies began fall camp in early August, they didn’t know who their starting quarterback was going to be. They didn’t know they were going to lose their best and most experienced offensive lineman two weeks before the season opener. They didn’t know how well their new-look front seven would be able to replace at that NFL talent lost on defense.
There was much uncertainty about this team then, when Vegas oddmakers pegged UW’s over/under win total at four.
On their journey to become bowl eligible this season — leading to Saturday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against Southern Mississippi at Cotton Bowl Stadium (11:25 a.m. PT, ESPN) — the Huskies answered most of the significant questions that confronted them. Freshman Jake Browning is established as the quarterback; the raw offensive line founds its way late in the season, despite the loss of senior guard Dexter Charles early on; and, best of all, the revamped defense blossomed into the best unit in the Pac-12.
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That the 6-6 Huskies have a chance to finish the season with a winning record, well, that would a noteworthy accomplishment too in what many saw as a rebuilding year.
“I said before the season, if we end up 7-5 (or) 6-6 and get a chance to play in a bowl game, that’s a really good year for the schedule we had to play and some of the (players) we lost,” said defensive line coach Jeff Choate, who will coach his final game with UW on Saturday before moving on as Montana State’s new head coach. “If we can take this thing out on a high note (with a bowl win), I know this place is positioned for tremendous things in the future.”
The Huskies will send off 14 seniors who are eager for one more win to end their college careers. As much as anything, though, this game is about sustaining the momentum they created in their last two regular season games — when they outscored Oregon State and Washington State 97-17 — and entering 2016 with confidence.
“It’s not the end of the season for us; it’s more like the beginning,” sophomore linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. “We’re going to try to carry on from what we do in this bowl game to next year. So we have to focus on getting a win.”
A year ago, in their first bowl game under Chris Petersen, the Huskies had an uninspiring start in a loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl. As a means of course correction, Petersen altered the practice scheduled a bit this month, incorporating more “live” periods with the intent of creating more intensity.
“We’ve had a lot of struggles through the year, and a lot of good struggles, a lot of growth,” Petersen said. “And I think the last couple games, the kids have played really well. We all know this is the final game, and it won’t be fun if we don’t play our best football. It won’t feel good. It felt terrible last year. And hopefully we’ve learned from that.”
The oddsmakers have learned a bit about this UW team along the way — enough, anyway, to make the Huskies an 8.5-point favorite against the Golden Eagles (9-4).
That shouldn’t mean anything, of course, when the team take the field Saturday, but the Huskies did beat the odds by getting to a bowl game — and they have made it clear that winning this game means something to them, for now and for their future.