Washington-Southern Miss. Preview
Bowl eligibility certainly came in satisfying fashion for Washington.
Having earned an extra game by routing their ranked archrival in the regular-season finale, the Huskies now turn their attention to Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in both teams' first game at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday.
Washington (6-6) will have had nearly a month to celebrate clinching its sixth consecutive bowl berth with a 45-10 victory over then-No. 20 Washington State on Nov. 27.
Myles Gaskin ran for 138 yards and two touchdowns and Sidney Jones, Darren Gardenhire and Azeem Victor returned turnovers for scores in the second half as Washington won its third straight Apple Cup.
The Huskies' impressive defensive effort included shutting down the best passing attack in the nation. The Cougars came in averaging 407 yards through the air but were limited to 288.
"It meant a lot to us getting that sixth win," linebacker Keishawn Bierria said. "Today we made a statement."
Despite its inconsistent season, Washington has earned back-to-back victories by a combined 97-17 score. The Huskies' defense - mostly a strong point this year - allowed an average of 288.0 yards in those two games.
Coach Chris Petersen's first bowl victory running the program would certainly be a welcome final chapter to a second six-loss season in as many years in Seattle. He's still building toward matching the level of success he enjoyed in eight years at Boise State.
Washington fell 30-22 in last season's Cactus Bowl after also entering that postseason game with two straight victories.
"We had a really, really tough schedule (this season)," Petersen told the Heart of Dallas Bowl's official website. "The Pac-12 is a really, really good conference this year. And back to back. You get a win, it's hard to build off that momentum because the next team coming in is so good. And if you get hit in the mouth, you better rally right away because a team that's maybe even better than the team who beat you is coming next week.
"So our guys learned some hard lessons there. But I also think it's made us better, and I think it's kind of hardened us in some ways."
Now Petersen, who relied on true freshmen in starting quarterback Jake Browning, leading rusher Gaskin (1,121 yards) and left tackle Trey Adams, will try to get his team to apply those lessons in its first meeting with Southern Miss - and maybe add some exposure by playing in the 85-year-old Cotton Bowl.
"The best recruiting we can do is go down there and play a good football game because I know there will be a lot of people with eyes on us," Petersen said. "At that time when we're down there, it's a dead period. So we can't be out off campus recruiting.
"And so the most important thing for us to do, like I say, is play well in that game on the 26th. And that will be as good as recruiting as we can do down there as any - it will be better than 100 phone calls or 100 letters or any of those type of things.
"If you play good football, people take notice."
Petersen's defense will need to continue playing good football against the resurgent Golden Eagles (9-4), who boast the 12th-best passing attack in the FBS at 336.0 yards per game and are tied for ninth with 519.8 total. Nick Mullins threw for 4,145 yards (seventh in the nation), 36 touchdowns (tied for fourth) and 12 interceptions.
Southern Miss' potent running attack is led by 1,000-yard rushers Jalen Richard and Ito Smith.
Washington is allowing 216.0 passing yards and 133.9 on the ground per game.
"The Heart of Dallas Bowl is a tremendous reward for our team and an outstanding opportunity to advance our football program on a big stage," Director of Athletics Bill McGillis said. "The University of Washington is an excellent opponent with a rich tradition of championship football. Opportunities to play against High Resource Five conference opponents - especially those in the Pac-12 are rare - and we're very fortunate to have this one against the Huskies."
The Golden Eagles carried a six-game winning streak into the Conference USA championship game Dec. 5 but lost 45-28 to Western Kentucky. Mullins was 15 of 30 for 181 yards with a touchdown but threw three interceptions.
"We got worn out in the second half - our defense did," coach Todd Monken said. "We weren't able to move the football like we are capable of. We got out-coached. We got out-played today. That's the way it is. But, I am proud of our team. We've come a long way."
Southern Miss, which had gone 4-32 over the previous three years, is making its first bowl appearance since the 2011 season.
Though Washington is averaging only 388.3 total yards, it rolled up 925 in its final two games, including 511 rushing.
Southern Miss is giving up 140.8 yards per game on the ground.