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Washington Football: 5 Reasons the Huskies Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game

Washington Football: 5 Reasons the Huskies Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game

Washington Football: 5 Reasons the Huskies Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game

For the Washington Huskies, there's no push for making the College Football Playoff, not this year. But the stakes are still plenty high Saturday night at Levi's Stadium when Washington takes on Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

For one, the Huskies are going for a second Pac-12 title in three seasons. What's more, the winner will earn a spot in the "Granddaddy of Them All," the Rose Bowl Game. Washington last played in the Rose Bowl Game in 2001, beating Purdue 34-24.

Two seasons ago, the Huskies arrived in Santa Clara, California, for the Pac-12 Championship Game ranked fourth in the country with an 11-1 record. After dispatching of the Colorado Buffaloes 41-10, Washington was rewarded with a spot in the playoff.

This season, the Huskies are 9-3 overall and 7-2 in Pac-12 play, winning the North division courtesy of a convincing 28-15 home victory over then-No. 8 Washington State in the Apple Cup last Friday. Sitting at 11th in the current College Football Playoff rankings, Washington won't be able to leap frog enough teams, even with an impressive victory over Utah, to get into the final four once again.

But making it back to the playoff wasn't the only goal this Huskies team had entering this season. They can check another one off the list Friday night against the Utes, a team they have already beaten this season, winning 21-7 in Salt Lake City back on Sept. 15. Here are five reasons why Washington's next game also will be played in California, just further south.

5 Reasons Why Washington Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game

1. Defense

Defense wins championships. Need proof? Just take a look at the two teams in the Pac-12 title game.

Washington and Utah boast the two best defenses in the conference, so it’s no surprise they’re playing one another for Pac-12 bragging rights. The Huskies and Utes are ranked 13th (311.3 ypg) and 15th (315.8), respectively, in the nation when it comes to total defense.

And Washington is coming off quite a statement game defensively, limiting Washington State — the nation’s top-ranked passing offense — to just 152 passing yards and 237 total yards in last week's Apple Cup win.

That should give the Dawgs a bump in confidence, especially against a Utah squad that is without starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and top running Zack Moss. Huntley broke his collarbone last month and Moss, who is second in the conference in rushing with 121.3 yards per game, was sidelined by a knee injury just a few days later.

The Huskies have many key pieces on defense, one of them being junior safety Taylor Rapp. Two years ago, Rapp was named the Pac-12 Championship Game MVP after recording two interceptions in the win over Colorado, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

2. Myles Gaskin

Even though he missed two games earlier this season, Gaskin went over the 1,000-yard mark last week against Washington State. That made him the first player in Pac-12 history to post four consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns.

Gaskin's 170-yard, three-touchdown performance fueled the Huskies' 28-15 win over the Cougars, highlighted by his 80-yard TD gallop early in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. The senior has amassed 5,131 rushing yards in his career, which ranks him third in Pac-12 history behind only USC's Charles White (6,245 yards) and Oregon's Royce Freeman (5,621).

Just how important is Gaskin to the Huskies? After suffering a shoulder injury in a win over UCLA on Oct. 6, Gaskin was limited the following week against Oregon. Washington lost that game, 30-27 in overtime. Two weeks later, the shoulder kept him out of action against Cal, a game the Huskies lost 12-10 in which they ran for a season-low 91 yards on 33 carries (2.8 ypc).

It's certainly possible that if Gaskin had been healthy for both games, Washington may be 11-1 and still in the conversation for a College Football Playoff spot. Instead, he has a chance to help his team win a second Pac-12 title in three seasons, and the opponent is one in which he has already had quite a bit of success against.

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In four games against the Utes, Gaskins has rolled up 439 rushing yards, including 143 in the teams' first meeting earlier this season. Utah's defense has been good, but the Utes already know what they are going up against in Gaskin.

3. Huskies can gain ground with more than just Gaskin

While Gaskin’s the true threat in the Huskies' ground attack, he’s not the only cog in this offense.

Salvon Ahmed has 576 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground on just 91 carries this season. His 6.3 yards per carry puts him third in the Pac-12 and tops Gaskin's mark (5.1) by more than a yard.

Just when opponents think they have caught a break when Gaskin is on the sideline or doesn't get the hand off, here comes Ahmed. In the last two games alone, he has totaled 163 rushing yards while averaging nine yards per attempt.

Fellow sophomores Kamari Pleasant and Sean McGrew also have gotten involved, running for 214 and 213 yards, respectively, to give Washington's offense even more options. And quarterback Jake Browning knows how to use his feet to escape trouble and pick up yards when necessary. He has 126 yards and four touchdowns on the ground this season.

As a team, the Huskies average 185 rushing yards per game but that have been in a groove as of late. Washington has amassed 533 yards on the ground alone in the last two games.

Utah's offense has been even more productive running the football (second in the Pac-12) than the Huskies, but the Utes are already down their No. 1 ball carrier. Washington has theirs as well as several other options to employ against Utah's staunch (No. 1 in the conference) defense.

4. Jake Browning

Like Gaskin, Browning came into his senior season considered by some a Heisman contender after being a finalist two years ago. While neither will be invited to the upcoming ceremony in New York City, they still provide the Huskies with one of the best QB-RB combos in the nation.

And similar to Gaskin, Browning will need to be at his best on Friday night to help his team win another Pac-12 title and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl Game. Browning's passing numbers are down (2,692 yards, 16 TDs, 9 INTs) this season, especially compared to what he did in 2016, but he's still one of the nation's most efficient signal-callers.

Browning also has come to accept that it's not always about putting up huge numbers, as he has let his running game and defense do the heavy lifting for most of the season. Consider that in the first game against Utah, Browning threw for just 155 yards and a touchdown (with an INT) in the win.

However, he is more than capable of rising to the occasion when needed, as evidenced by the 354-yard, two-TD effort he put up in last season's 33-30 home victory against the Utes.

5. Unfinished business

The last two weeks have been emotional for Washington. Two weeks ago it was Senior Day in Seattle and the Huskies went out and smoked Oregon State 42-23. Last Friday it was the Apple Cup in Pullman with the Pac-12 North Division title on the line, as well as Washington State's College Football Playoff hopes. The Huskies braved the blizzard-like conditions and basically dominated the Cougars from start to finish in a satisfying 28-15 victory.

While it shouldn’t be difficult to ask a team to get up for a conference championship game with a big-time bowl berth also at stake, it's not always easy for a team to be "on" its game either. But this is a senior-laden Washington team that knows it still has two games left, giving these Huskies two more chances to show how good they are. Head coach Chris Petersen said earlier this week that he's not too concerned about any sort of letdown factor.

"I think it's interesting for us because the (Washington State) game was going to be a big game and they were playing so well and we had to play our best ball," Petersen said on Monday during his weekly press conference. "Then we go into this next game and have to play another step (up). Then depending on the bowl game, those matchups are usually pretty tough.

"It just comes back to us playing the best we can possibly play. The kids will know what they're in for, having experienced them one time, and watching tape, they're going to be like, 'OK, we'd better be at our best.'"

— Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.