When Jake Browning stepped on the bright, blue field in Boise three years ago, he had no idea what to expect.
The Washington quarterback was 19, a true freshman and already the Huskies’ starter, about to make his debut versus Boise State in front of 36,836 hostile fans, against a defense that would finish the 2015 season ranked in the top-15 in total yards allowed.
“I didn’t have a redshirt year. I’d never even been on the sideline during a game, never been the person doing the signals or something like that,” Browning recalled. “This year we played Auburn, everybody was talking about how it was going to be a really hard game. But the hardest game I ever played in was against Boise State.”
The results were, to put it kindly, pedestrian. Browning completed 20 of his 34 passing attempts for 150 yards, throwing an interception and being sacked twice in the 16-13 loss. But a lot has changed since then.
Now a senior, Browning is leading the Huskies into the Rose Bowl for the first time in 18 years to face Ohio State in the final game of his collegiate career.
As surreal as that is, Browning is at peace with the end of this chapter of his life.
“Definitely feels kind of weird that after this I’m done here at Washington,” Browning said. “After four years, you kind of feel like, ‘My time has come.’ You’re kind of ready to move on to the next thing.
“Definitely some games we wish we could have maybe had a play or two different. But I think there’s some peace of mind I’ve been able to work really hard and put as much effort and energy into this as I can.”
Browning, the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, is Washington’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. He led the Huskies to conference championships in 2016 and 2018, and the College Football Playoff two years ago.
The Huskies hadn’t won a whole lot in the yearsprior to Browning committing the UW out of Folsom High School. Washington’s previous conference championship came in 2000, before Browning had even hit grade school.
Now, things are different.
“Higher expectations,” Browning said of how Washington has changed since he arrived on campus in 2015. “My freshman year we were expected to win, I think, four games. The next year we’re in the College Football Playoff. So I think every single year setting a new standard.
“Now, we kind of expect to be the Pac-12 champions every single year and I think our fans expect that.”
The expectations grew with Browning’s right arm, or at least his confidence and ability when utilizing it.
Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan was the Huskies’ receivers coach when Browning first arrived in Seattle. As much as Browning has grown as a player since then, he’s essentially been the same person from the get-go.
“The day he stepped on campus, his maturity level was that of an NFL player,” Hamdan said. “I think naturally, just like any quarterback, your game develops from game to game, from year to year. But it’s been his consistency through the whole course of his time that’s been most impressive.”
But after Tuesday’s game, the Browning era will be over at Washington, and for the first time in four years the Huskies will have a question at quarterback instead of that kid from Folsom who was thrown into the fire at Boise.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” head coach Chris Petersen said. “He’s a special person, a special player to us, to the program.”
DON’T FORGET THE RUN GAME
For as much attention as Browning gets for the Huskies, Ohio State isn’t about to overlook the Washington rushing attack.
Senior running back Myles Gaskin rushed for 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 11 games this year, while sophomore Salvon Ahmed racked up 604 ground yards and seven scores.
“Their identity, their M.O., lies behind their running backs and O-line,” Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said. “I think they want to run the ball.”
Ohio State expects to see the Huskies try to run the ball in early downs. The Buckeyes’ goal is to make stops on first and second down to force passing situations, in which Ohio State can release its pass rush, which averages an even three sacks per game.
It’s not too dissimilar from last year’s Cotton Bowl matchup for Ohio State, when the Buckeyes faced USC and running back Ronald Jones II.
“I think both of them are kind of patient, smaller, shifty-type of guys,” defensive end Chase Young said. “This game, we’re definitely going to have to control our gaps.”