The last time Jake Luton faced his hometown University of Washington Huskies, it was a game to forget.
Luton, starting at quarterback for Oregon State last November, may have had a reasonable individual performance before his family and friends at Husky Stadium. However, he was also forced to watch Washington score at will en route to a 42-23 loss that dropped the Beavers to 2-9, a disappointing moment that seemed destined to be one of Luton’s final memories of college football.
But fate is giving Luton one more crack at the Huskies, and given the way Luton is playing, he has every chance at gaining revenge.
The Marysville Pilchuck High School graduate is in the midst of a sensational season as a sixth-year senior for the Beavers, and it’s having implications not only for Oregon State’s prospects when the Beavers host Washington on Friday night, but also for his opportunities beyond college.
“It’s been really fun,” Luton said. “This is what I came back to do, to be in a situation where I was able to put a full season together, and it’s been good so far. There’s still a lot of season ahead, but it’s been good.”
How good? Luton’s numbers are fantastic, as he’s gone 155-for-255 for 1,930 yards with a Russell Wilson-like touchdown-interception ratio of 19-1. In Oregon State’s 48-31 victory at UCLA on Oct. 5 Luton threw five TD passes, and he capped off his performance with a game-clinching 19-yard touchdown run in the game’s final minutes. In the Beavers’ game at Cal on Oct. 19, Luton engineered a 12-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter drive as OSU came from behind to win 21-17. Then last week at Arizona, he was nearly flawless, completing 20 of 26 passes for 328 yards and three TDs as the victorious Beavers put 56 points on the board.
Luton’s exploits have been noticed. He was named the College Football Performance Awards National Player of the Week for his effort against UCLA.
But this is a season that almost never happened.
Luton was a redshirt senior last year, and it appeared his time at Oregon State was going to be defined not by what he accomplished on the field, but rather by the injuries that kept him off it. In 2017, his first season with the Beavers after arriving from Ventura (California) Community College, he suffered a frightening spinal injury that ended his season before it really got started. Last year he missed games early in the season because of a concussion and later in the season because of an ankle injury. Over two seasons injuries limited him to just nine starts, and it would have been understandable if Luton was fed up.
“We weren’t sure what he was going to do,” Oregon State offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said. “He’d just graduated and he’d suffered a number of injuries in his career, so we weren’t sure if he was going to hang it up and be done, or declare for the draft and see what happened.”
Luton instead decided to apply for a medical redshirt, and in January he was granted a sixth season to try to turn around his college career.
Luton was back, but he had to compete for the starting job again. He beat out Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia during spring practice. This fall he’s finally getting a chance to show what he can do when he’s healthy — and he’s making the most of it. He announced himself on Oregon State’s first drive of the season against Oklahoma State, guiding a six-play, 70-yard drive that concluded with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Hodgins, the first of what’s been 12 TD connections between the two.
“I feel good, really good,” Luton said about his health. “I worked really hard all offseason to get in the best shape of my life so I’d be ready come fall.”
Both Luton and Lindgren said Luton’s biggest improvement between last year and this year, excepting health, has been mental.
“I don’t think there’s anything different from a throwing standpoint,” Luton said. “I think it’s the mental side of the game. That’s such a huge part of the quarterback position, and I’ve taken that really seriously this year. I’ve been trying to improve every day on the mental side, whether that’s in the film room or with the playbook, and that’s what’s changed most.”
“I think it’s the understanding and recognition of defenses,” Lindgren concurred. “He’s improved his decision making and anticipation. He’s better at understanding how defenses are trying to attack him, the game has slowed down for him that way. He gets through his reads and progressions quicker, and that’s made him a lot more efficient with the football.”
As a result Oregon State comes into this week’s matchup with Washington, the team Luton supported while growing up, with a better Pac-12 record (3-2 league, 4-4 overall) than the Huskies (2-4, 5-4). Should the Beavers win — the betting line has them as 10-point underdogs — they’ll be in position for their first winning season and bowl bid since 2013.
Beyond that? Luton acknowledges he has NFL aspirations. At 6-foot-7 and with a big arm, he has the skill set that makes NFL scouts salivate.
“He’s got that arm strength that those guys are looking for,” Lingdren said. “He can make all the throws at that level. I think the question for him was, ‘Can he stay healthy?’ That’s the thing that hampered him his whole career. But he’s healthy now, and those guys were waiting for a season like this.”
So was Luton, and he hopes it continues against the Huskies.
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