Tevis Bartlett was born on Jan. 1. So when the Washington linebacker was growing up, the celebration often centered around the Rose Bowl. His family would wake up, eat cake and gather around the television to watch.
Now, the Huskies are one win away from playing in the Rose Bowl on Bartlett’s birthday. It would be an incredible opportunity, he said, to help get UW back to there for the first time since 2001.
There’s only one more obstacle standing in the way: Friday’s Pac-12 championship game against Utah.
It didn’t always look like the season would end up here. The Huskies opened the year with bigger ambitions: A College Football Playoff berth, perhaps even a national championship.
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The season-opening loss to Auburn made those goal more difficult. The overtime loss to Oregon eliminated them. But UW was still on track to win the Pac-12 North when it traveled to play Cal. Then, in their worst offensive performance of the season, the Huskies fell 12-10.
For a few hours, the road to the conference championship game was blurry. But then Washington State defeated Stanford later that night, putting UW back in the same position: Win out, and the Huskies would take the Pac-12 North.
Last Friday night, in the snow at Martin Stadium, they completed that task.
“Obviously, it’s not the season that everybody kind of hoped for,” Bartlett said. “At the end of the day, we are where wanted to be and able to go for a Pac-12 championship, which is our No. 1 goal around here.
“It’s definitely been tough. At the end of the day, we’re blessed to be in this situation and we’re going to go give it our all on (Friday).”
UW puts an emphasis on finishing what they start, said defensive back Jordan Miller. While the season didn’t begin the way the Huskies envisioned, the conference championship was something they could still obtain. So that’s where they kept their focus.
“November football, we know we can win it and we wanted to finish this season out as best we can,” Miller said. “We got to control what we can control and if we do, we can go to the Rose Bowl.”
Running back Myles Gaskin said the Huskies did more than just get through the losses. They used them as motivation. In his mind, UW is just a few plays away from being undefeated.
He’s not wrong.
UW lost all three of their games by a combined 10 points. Penalties and mistakes doomed the Huskies against Auburn. The Oregon game came down to a missed field goal in regulation. As for Cal, an attempt to jumpstart the offense by pulling Jake Browning resulted in a Golden Bears’ interception and game-winning touchdown.
“Just kind of knowing that and learning from that,” Gaskin said. “Kind of going into each game like we’re not going to let that happen ever again. We’re not going to let that happen this week. That kind of mentality. Just learning from our past mistakes.”
Said Browning: “I think we just kept fighting, kept battling. I think after a lot of those games, we kind of felt like we still had a chance to end up in this Pac-12 championship and so, you know, we just kept battling away.”
For all the ups-and-downs of the Huskies’ season, Gaskin said the puzzle pieces seem to be coming together at exactly the right time.
Gaskin, who missed two games after suffering an injury against Oregon, returned for the final three games of the regular season. Sophomore tight end Hunter Bryant is back, too. He missed most of the season after undergoing knee surgery. So did left tackle Trey Adams, who stepped in for Jared Hilbers when the latter was injured against Washington State.
It’s been the same on the defensive side. Miller, also injured against Oregon, is starting again. Myles Bryant sat out the victory over Stanford before returning against Oregon State.
“I think getting Hunter back was a huge thing,” Gaskin said. “Getting Trey to come back, bounce back. He was out for a long time. It’s just good to see him out there. I think that gives everybody a little bit more juice just to see that dude with everything that he’s went through. Myself, it’s just been good to be back out there. It really did suck missing those games.”
Gaskin has put together three of his best performances of the season over the past three weeks, averaging 151 rushing yards per game and scoring five touchdowns. He ran for a season-high 170 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over Washington State.
Hunter Bryant, who said he’s growing more comfortable on the field since returning from injury, caught three passes for 108 yards and a touchdown against the Cougars.
“That dude’s a freak,” Miller said of Bryant. “I can’t even describe how he plays. Every time it was third and a long, I was like, why not just throw it to Hunter? He’s going to get there and he’ll catch it. That’s how I feel. I’ve been waiting for him to come back all year.”
While the Huskies’ were missing the injured players, others stepped into their roles. That means UW has even more experience to rely on in the Pac-12 championship and a future bowl game.
“We got everybody back, basically,” Lake said. “Now we can really use these guys and even if somebody does get a little tweaked here and there, we can put a guy in and there’s not going to be a lot of drop off.”
Throughout the season, offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan encouraged his players to get out of the building. He called their response to losses “tremendous,” but he still thinks it’s important to take time away from football.
Go on a date, he told them, see a movie. Just hang out somewhere other than the football facility. It’s advice he finds easier to give than follow. But if players don’t take a break, he said, replaying certain mistakes will consume them.
It’s a testament to the Huskies’ maturity, he said, that they always kept the vision for the season alive.
“Everybody wants every year to go 11-0 and ride off into the sunset and playoffs and all that,” Hamdan said. “This team has been tested time and time and time again. Sometimes, I think in these walls, dealing with it everyday. You almost have to get away to take the next step. You can’t beat yourself up about it.
“These guys have gone back to work every single day, one day at a time, eliminated the noise. And that has been what’s put them in position to go for a Pac-12 championship.”