Rush to judgment: Gaskin key to UW Rose Bowl win

USA Today photo
Dan Raley

Washington enters the Rose Bowl as a near touchdown underdog to Ohio State. The experts cite a Husky offense that lacks explosiveness, one most recently limited to a mere 10 points by Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, as the difference.

However, the last running back to enjoy a big outing for the Huskies in Pasadena on New Year’s Day says it would be a huge mistake to underestimate the abilities of the little guy who fills his job now—Myles Gaskin.

“He’s been there to answer bell for four straight years,” said Greg Lewis, who rushed for 128 yards against Iowa in the 1991 Rose Bowl. “Every time he laces up his shoes he gives you 100 percent. He gives you everything he’s got. That makes him special.”

Not only is Gaskin the UW’s all-time leading rusher, he’s been very good in the postseason. Three years ago, he got loose for 181 yards and four touchdowns, breaking free on an 86-yard scoring run, against Southern Mississippi in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. A year ago, he ran for 98 yards and two scores, dashing 69 yards to the end zone, against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Gaskin, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior from Lynnwood and O’Dea High School, has run for nearly three miles in his career—in football metrics, he’s piled up 5,202 yards on 921 carries, averaging 5.6 per rush. He’s the only conference player to rush for 1,000 yards in each of four seasons and just the 10th guy to do it in NCAA annals.

Ohio State should be as concerned with Gaskin as much as anyone in an opposing uniform on Jan. 1—he very well could dictate whether the Huskies win or lose this 105th Rose Bowl. He’s a highly deceptive player, something not every opponent fully understands until it’s too late.

While he often looks like he’s coasting, Gaskin is actually sizing up the defense and trying to pick out a weak spot and exploit it. Once he chooses a lane, he uses his extraordinary balance and notable burst to pick up a lot of yards. But that’s only one of his many offensive skills.

“He can play all four downs whether it’s short yardage, coming out of the backfield, running between the tackles or running to the outside,” Lewis said. “He can definitely hit the home run and go the distance. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. There’s nothing about him where you see a weakness. NFL scouts will say he’s not very big but he plays big.”

Had Gaskin acted on his first impulse during his recruitment, he could have ended up playing for Arizona State. The Lynnwood resident and O’Dea High School product initially favored a college football career in the desert. He likes to tell how his mother strongly advised him that she wanted him to stay home and play for Washington, and he didn’t dare go against her wishes.

Gaskin’s second thought-provoking decision involving the Huskies was whether to turn pro after his junior season. A lower than preferred draft position might have had some influence, but the shifty back said he was all in for finishing up his college eligibility alongside his teammates.

“People ask me about that and people suggested it to me, but I’m not one of those people,” he said of leaving college early. “Once you’re in something, you have to ride it out. That’s the way I look at it. Ain’t no use in looking back. That’s a waste of time. Life is too short for that.”

Gaskin now belongs to Washington’s list of elite running backs, one that includes George Wilson, Chuck Carroll and Hugh McElhenny, each an Associated Press All-America first-team selection; Napoleon Kaufman and Joe Steele, each the UW’s all-time leading rusher at some point; and Corey Dillon, Chris Polk, Bishop Sankey, Junior Coffey, Charlie Mitchell, Rick Fenney, George Fleming and Lewis, all eventual NFL runners.

“I’ve watched Husky football since 1949 and I can state that Myles Gaskin is the most productive running back in UW football history,” said Doug Glant, a longtime team supporter who still pays respect to the lone NFL Hall of Famer among this bunch. “I say most productive instead of the best, because the best was Hugh McElhenny.”

It took Gaskin six games as a freshman to work his way into the Huskies’ opening lineup, and he enters the Rose Bowl with 39 starts in 51 games. He has scored 60 touchdowns, 55 on the ground. He has piled up 25 100-yard rushing games, four of 181 yards or more.

Any similarities between Gaskin and Lewis, the then Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and initial Doak Walker winner as the nation’s top running back 28 years ago, come at the end of the run.

“Both of us seemed to go forward when we got hit—we had good balance,” Lewis said. “We were always going forward to get us an extra yard or two. I didn’t lose many yards in my time and I don’t remember him having many negative yards. Now I was bigger, but he’s definitely faster.”

Gaskin has proved to be a durable runner, missing just two games in his career, both absences coming at midseason from a nagging shoulder injury. He was greatly missed when the Huskies lost to California 12-10 without him. Admittedly, it took him a game as a freshman to get oriented in how things work at the college level. He wasn’t quite ready the first time the ball was shoved into his midsection in the 2015 opener against Boise State. Otherwise, he’s been plugged in.

“My second play in there I didn’t know the play at all and he just handed the ball to me and I got blown up,” Gaskin recalled. “I didn’t go back in for the rest of the game. And (Jake Browning) yelled at me, too. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ Other than that it’s always been good. No complaints after that.”

He’ll try to close out his exceptional career with an upset of Ohio State, a powerful 12-1 team that has had defensive lapses at times. The Buckeyes have been vulnerable up front since defensive end Nick Bosa, pegged as the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft, got injured early this season and announced he wouldn’t play any more college ball.

Then it’s on to the pros for Gaskin, where Lewis says he will be compared favorably to Darren Sproles, a pint-sized Philadelphia Eagles running back who’s enjoyed a productive 13-year NFL career and says he will retire soon. Sproles showed himself to be a big-play back though he’s had to fight off his share of injuries.

Hopefully, Gaskin will last longer than Lewis, who played just two seasons for the Denver Broncos before crippling injuries ended his pro career.

“The NFL is tough for a smaller running back,” Lewis said. “You see the shoulder injury that Myles had and those are things the NFL worries about with a smaller stature guy. You play against monsters. Everything happens a lot faster. Myles won’t be an every-down running back because it’s tough running inside in the NFL. But I believe he will have a really nice career and make some plays.”

Fifty-two years ago, Ohio State hosted Washington in Columbus, Ohio, and were totally blindsided by the dominant performance of a Huskies running back—Donnie Moore. The Tacoma native and Lincoln High alumnus rushed at will for 221 yards and two touchdowns, breaking a 47-yarder to score at the end, while leading the UW to a 38-22 victory. It remains the most yardage gained by an opposing back against the Buckeyes in school history. By a wide margin.

Moore, who got booted from the UW team two weeks following his command performance in Ohio for a silly training infraction, was last known to be living in Riverside, California, not far from the Rose Bowl. Wouldn’t it be something if Moore showed up to watch the Huskies and Buckeyes go at it on New Year’s Day? If little else, to see what Gaskin can do with his Ohio State moment?

Here’s a link to the Donnie Moore story that I wrote 15 years ago for the now-shuttered Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. Please excuse the coding typos I see interspersed throughout. I feel lucky I can still find the story, in any condition, on line. It’s a good primer for the upcoming UW-Ohio State matchup. Check it out: