Three years ago, UW had just clawed its way to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. It’s been straight up from there, and the Huskies’ next goal is winning a big-time bowl — such as Tuesday’s Rose Bowl.
LOS ANGELES — For 28 hours, Jake Browning was stranded in the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. This was three years ago, beginning a day after Christmas and just hours after the Huskies won the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and Browning spent a night sleeping on the airport floor while waiting out a deadly tornado.
Meanwhile, the Huskies’ chartered team flight back to Seattle — carrying coaches, staffers and players — was able to take off out of Dallas during the storm. The pilot told passengers to brace for something most had never experienced before: a military-style takeoff.
Many on board called it was the most harrowing flight they’ve ever been on. Some were screaming. At least one person witnessed another passenger vomit.
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“It was a roller coaster,” UW defensive end Benning Potoa’e said. “We were going straight up. Literally straight up. The turbulence was insane.”
Such was the ending of Washington’s 2015 season, a transformative year that set the stage for all the success that would follow and culminating in the Huskies’ first Rose Bowl appearance in 18 years Tuesday against Ohio State.
Kickoff Tuesday is set for 2:10 p.m. on ESPN.
From a 4-6 record in early November 2015, the Huskies won their final three games to finish 7-6 and, yeah, it was straight up from there.
“We were frickin’ scrapping to get to a bowl game, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of my career,” Browning said, looking back at his freshman season. “I think that’s where the ball got rolling a little bit and gained some momentum toward the end of that season, and that’s what carried us into the next season.”
The Huskies, of course, had their breakthrough the following year, winning their first Pac-12 championship in 16 years and advancing to the College Football Playoff for the first time. In 2017, they made it to the Fiesta Bowl, and this season they won the conference again, and here they are in the Rose Bowl.
Browning, Myles Gaskin, Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary were all freshmen starters at vital positions on offense in 2015. Backed by the Pac-12’s best defense, this senior class will play for its 40th victory Tuesday, which would establish a program record.
“They’ve been awesome. They’ve certainly helped change our program, the foundation,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday. “It’s kind of interesting because I think one time there was like 10 of those guys who played as true freshmen. I don’t know if they’re still all with us. Some guys might have went to the NFL early and all those things.
“But they’ve just done it the way we’ve asked. And they’ve stayed really focused the whole time and they’ve been great kids and been awesome to be around.”
The next step for this class, senior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said, is to win a major bowl game. The Huskies will get that opportunity Tuesday against an Ohio State team that had designs on a return to the CFP for most of 2018. The No. 5 Buckeyes (12-1), the Big Ten champions, are 6.5-point betting favorites over the Huskies (10-3).
Beyond the Rose Bowl, Burr-Kirven predicted the Huskies will continue to be part of the playoff discussion in years to come. Burr-Kirven pointed to the trajectory of UW’s recruiting profile the past couple of seasons.
“If you look at where we were when we first got here, Coach Pete was trying to get his culture in and get guys who were great guys but also top talent, and now I think you’re kind of seeing that,” the All-American linebacker said. “The recruiting class we’ve been getting the last couple years — the stars at the end of the day don’t really matter, but if you look at the rankings it’s a whole different ballgame to what my class was supposed to be. So it’s pretty cool to see, and for the foreseeable future we’re going to be a powerhouse. I think Coach Pete’s got what he wants set up now and it’s just going to be a pipeline.”
The tornado sirens blared outside the Cotton Bowl stadium about 20 minutes after the Huskies wrapped up their Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over Southern Mississippi on Dec. 26, 2015. Earlier that season, those sirens could have been symbolic.
In hindsight, they instead served as a warning call to the rest of college football: Here come the Huskies.
“When I first got here, my first year playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, I didn’t know how the next three years were going to go when we were 6-6,” senior cornerback Jordan Miller said. “For the next year to go to the playoff, and for the next year to go against Penn State, and for this year to be in the Rose Bowl, it’s just a blessing honestly. I’m just glad we could play at the level we have. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.
“Our little core group of guys … we’re all so close, and I knew that guys on the team really wanted to turn this program around when we got here and we really did leave the program better than when we found it. That’s the whole thing. I feel really good about it and I just hope it continues to grow and I hope that we get a national championship in the next couple years — that’s what I hope. I wish we could’ve got it, but it’s cool. I think it’s coming real soon.”
A victory Tuesday would be no small consolation prize for these players and this program.