The Huskies' second Pac-12 title in three years marked the culmination of a long road
Pardon the colloquialism, but the Washington Huskies' 2018 season was not entirely a bed of roses.
Lauded as the overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 and perhaps return to the College Football Playoff, Washington endured a rash of injuries and heartbreaking defeat throughout the campaign. But hard-nosed defense and veteran leadership had the Huskies smelling sweet by regular season's end.
Their third consecutive double-digit-win season and second Pac-12 championship in three years culminates with a trip to the Rose Bowl Game, the Huskies' first since the 2000 campaign. Head coach Chris Petersen has effectively restored Washington as a perennial power in the West. Its appearance in the Granddaddy of 'Em All functions as a transitional bridge between eras, with some high-profile seniors integral in the program's restoration on the way out — but plenty of exciting playmakers remain in Seattle.
Offensive MVP: Nick Harris, C
The Washington offense leaned on different playmakers at various times: Myles Gaskin carried the load toward the end of the campaign, while the connection of Jake Browning and Aaron Fuller proved vital in the early season.
No matter if the emphasis was on the run or pass, however, a constant was Harris. When preseason All-American tackle Trey Adams was scratched prior to Week 1 due to surgery, the offensive line needed someone to emerge as an anchor. Harris did that, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Defensive MVP: Ben Burr-Kirven, LB
This one is a no-brainer. Not only was Burr-Kirven the Most Valuable Defensive Player on the Washington roster, and the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, but a strong case for him as the top defender in all of college football exists.
Burr-Kirven's 165 tackles are 10 more than the second-most prolific tackler in the nation. His versatility keyed the Huskies' defense, as Burr-Kirven could drop back into pass coverage — evident in his six pass breakups on the year — and generate timely turnovers. He forced three fumbles and picked off a pair of passes, including one in Washington's pivotal, Apple Cup defeat of Washington State.
Best Freshman: Joe Tryon, LB
A Washington defense that ranked in the top eight nationally each of the past three seasons, 2018 included, is in good hands in the future. The program will rely on young, emerging stars like Tryon to carry the mantle — and it's a role the freshman linebacker appears qualified to handle.
Tryon ranks 15th among all Huskies in tackles on the season, but it's more when he did his work than the sum that stands out. Tryon stepped up late in the season, making plays in the final month that proved crucial to Washington's championship aspirations. He recorded two tackles for a loss in the Apple Cup, including a sack.
Best Play of the Season: Byron Murphy's Championship Pick-Six
In a battle of the Pac-12's preeminent defenses, a defensive play was necessary to deliver a championship. Murphy provided that defensive play in spectacular fashion. He snagged a carom off Utah wide receiver Siaosi Mariner's leg and ran it back the other way for the Pac-12 Championship Game's only touchdown.
"I knew I had to make that play," Murphy said after the game. "As soon as the ball came in, I knew I had to get my hands on it and get the pick six."
"I'm just glad he didn't get caught," chuckled Chris Petersen. "When I saw him cut back, I'm like, 'Please, keep going.'"
Best Performance by a Player: Myles Gaskin Owns the Apple Cup
Gaskin's been at the forefront of Washington's resurgence. The workhorse running back rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four collegiate seasons, and it's only fitting he neared the end of his career on a high note.
Gaskin completed a four-year sweep of Washington State in a divisional championship Apple Cup rushing for season highs of three touchdowns and 170 yards. His two scores in the first half gave Washington a lead it never relinquished, and his 80-yard scamper in the fourth quarter slammed the door on the Cougars' comeback hopes.
More like the Gaskin Cup... pic.twitter.com/cZnE2XeBVR— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 24, 2018
Best Game (Team Performance): Kings of the North
Dropping games to Oregon and Cal in October meant Washington needed a perfect November to win the Pac-12 North; no easy task, with the Huskies drawing Stanford and rival Washington State in the regular season's closing weeks. The entire month of November could be deemed the best team performance of 2018 (and that includes beating Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game), but the undeniable highlight was the Apple Cup.
Washington visited a snow-covered Palouse the day after Thanksgiving. Neither the deluge nor any lingering effects from tryptophan slowed the Huskies. After the first of three Myles Gaskin touchdowns, they led throughout, thanks in large part to the defense's efforts. Washington State's 15 points were a season low.
Defining Moment: The Final 8:47 of the Apple Cup
Pac-12 football has long been known for its quick-strike offenses. Washington's return to the mountaintop has been the result of a more methodical style, however, and it's been a successful counter to the up-tempo styles that have defined the conference for years.
Never was that more evident in the fourth quarter of the Apple Cup; the final possession, in particular. Washington clung to a 20-15 lead when it got an interception of Gardner Minshew, then forced book-ending punts around Myles Gaskin's knockout touchdown.
The second of those Cougar punts came with almost nine minutes remaining, though, which is a lifetime with the kind of offense Washington State runs. But that's only if the Cougars' air-raid offense gets the ball. The Huskies went on an 8:47 drive that ended with the victory formation at the Washington State five-yard line, the Washington State defense (and the team's comeback chances) suffocated.
Biggest Surprise: Defense with a New Look
One of the most eyebrow-raising developments of Washington's preseason came with news that Pete Kwiatkowski — overseer of two defenses that ranked in the top eight nationally for points allowed the previous two years — would split play-calling duties with Jimmy Lake.
The two-man coordinator approach resulted in some notable changes for the Huskies. After having been one of the nation's top defenses in generating sacks a season ago, for example, the 2018 Huskies ranked 10th... in the Pac-12. A less aggressive pass rush resulted in fewer takeaways, from a nation-leading 33 in 2016; to 20 this season. The Huskies did not get a turnover for a touchdown until the 13th game on Byron Murphy's pick-six.
Still, Washington maintained one of the stingiest defenses in the country this season. The Huskies head into the Rose Bowl allowing 15.5 points per game — good for fifth in FBS, and just 0.7 behind fourth-place Alabama.
Biggest Disappointment: 10 Points
Winning a conference championship is the A-1 goal of any college football program. In the Pac-12, a conference title has particular significance for its historical association with the Rose Bowl Game.
At three losses, Washington was not (nor should have been) considered a contender for one of the four College Football Playoff berths. However, the Huskies were oh-so-close to staking claim to one of those spots. Washington lost two true road games, and one ostensible road game, by a total of 10 points. In the defeats to Auburn, Oregon and Cal, the Huskies had red-zone opportunities that, if converted upon, would have made the difference.
A conference championship and Rose Bowl berth are nothing to dismiss, but those near-misses beg the question, how might Washington have fared in the final four?
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Ben Burr-Kirven, LB
Following a win at UCLA in October, someone shouted during the postgame media session, "Ben Burr-Kirven for Governor!"
The linebacker's approval ratings for the portion of Washington that doesn't wear crimson and gray is probably 100 percent. Burr-Kirven put together a senior season on par with the best defensive campaigns in Huskies history, worthy of mention alongside Steve Emtman's 1991, Lawyer Milloy's '95, and Danny Shelton's 2014.
Replacing the nation's leading tackler is difficult enough, but Burr-Kirven's impending absence also will necessitate a new leader to emerge to shape the identity of the Huskies' defense in 2019.
Player to Watch in 2019: Salvon Ahmed, RB
Myles Gaskin manned the starting running back role for four years. The early phases of 2019 will mark the first in which a new No. 1 steps up since 2015, not counting the time Gaskin spent sidelined due to injury this season.
While an offseason competition looms, with youngsters Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant ready to vie for the starting job, Ahmed seems the most likely candidate to replace Gaskin. Ahmed added punch to the offense as a freshman in 2017, going for 338 rushing yards with 6.4 yards per carry average. He stepped up his overall production to 604 yards in 2018 with seven touchdowns, and also demonstrated a knack for catching passes out of the backfield.
Ahmed could be a breakout player in 2019 with an even heavier workload ahead of him.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Replacing Jake Browning
Like backfield mate Myles Gaskin, Browning's been a four-year fixture for the Washington offense. His 2016 season ranks among the very best in Pac-12 history, and while he never had quite the same touch in the subsequent campaigns, Browning's veteran poise factored prominently in Washington's success.
After four years of the same quarterback leading the offense, change looms for 2019. Backup Jake Haener played some in 2018. He threw a touchdown against FCS opponent North Dakota, and another against Cal — the problem with the latter was that it was to the Golden Bears, and ultimately made the difference in a 12-10 loss.
While the unsuccessful turn at Cal might be the lasting memory of Haener from 2018, he has plenty of practical experience to build from in the offseason. He'll have to fend off a former starter to win the job, however, with Georgia transfer Jacob Eason gaining eligibility after spending this year as a redshirt on the Huskies' scout team.