SEATTLE — Like a middle-aged man who just threw out his lower back, the University of Washington football team was in dire need of rehabilitation.
Following that ugly 13-7 loss at Arizona State two weeks ago, which ended Washington’s perfect season and severely hindered the Huskies’ hopes to getting back into the College Football Playoff, Saturday’s game against UCLA was all about rehabilitating the damage suffered at the hands of the Sun Devils.
But as anyone who has undergone rehab can attest, you don’t start out with max powerlifts and full-speed wind sprints. You start with mobility, flexibility and core strengthening.
In other words, you get back to the basics. And that’s just what the Huskies did Saturday.
Washington reverted to back-to-basics football Saturday to get its season back on track, relying on smashmouth running to defeat the Bruins 44-23 at a sun-kissed Husky Stadium.
In a week in which a statue of legendary Huskies coach Don James was unveiled in front of Husky Stadium, 12th-ranked Washington invoked James’ spirit in the manner in which it got its season headed back in the right direction Saturday.
“That game right there was in honor of Don James,” current coach Chris Petersen said. “If it was 40 degrees and raining he would have been extremely proud of running the ball and playing defense like that.”
And oh how the Huskies needed this performance.
Washington’s offense suffered the equivalent of the dreaded high-ankle sprain in that game against Arizona State. Going into that contest the undefeated Huskies were averaging 43 points per game, and they seemed certain to dismantle an Arizona State defense that had allowed 30 or more points in 11 straight contests. Instead, Washington was toothless in the dessert, and the nature of the defeat may have dashed any chance the Huskies have of getting into the final four.
So how did Washington go about trying to rehabilitate its season and reputation? By running straight ahead and daring the Bruins to stop them. The Huskies, who usually deploy a balanced and sophisticated offense, had 70 offensive plays Saturday. Fifty-eight of those were runs, good for a season-high 333 yards on the ground. Lynnwood native Myles Gaskin gained 169 yards on 27 carries and scored one touchdown. Lavon Coleman added 94 yards on 14 carries and scored three TDs. Quarterback Jake Browning threw the ball just 11 times, by far the fewest in his three years as Washington’s starter.
And Washington — with the exception of one 34-yard reverse by Salvon Ahmed — didn’t do it with any tricks or razzle dazzle. The Huskies did it with runs up the middle, runs off tackle and runs around the end. Gaskin regularly used his speed to turn the corner on UCLA’s defense for big gains down the sidelines. There were even a few occasions when Gaskin and Coleman lined up in the backfield together, just to further illustrate Washington’s commitment to the run.
“It was just getting back to basics, getting back to how we play football,” Coleman said. “Physical, hard-nosed Washington football.”
OK, UCLA’s run defense surely played a role in Washington’s strategy, too. The Bruins came into the game allowing 303.4 yards per game on the ground, ranking dead last in FBS in run defense, so it would have been coaching malpractice not to emphasize the run game. But Petersen admitted he didn’t expect Washington the be this run heavy.
“We didn’t go into the game planning to throw the ball 12 times, and we didn’t really get much downfield,” Petersen said. “We always have some really fun explosive stuff that we think we’re going to get to, which for whatever reason we just didn’t. It’s kind of how the first half went and how our defense was playing. The run game kept getting into a rhythm and it was good.”
Did Washington shape itself up enough to get back into the playoff picture? Last year the Huskies also suffered a midseason defeat, with a disappointing home loss to USC seemingly knocking Washington out of contention. Yet Washington won the rest of its games, and with other teams falling by the way side ended up eking out the fourth and final playoff berth as a one-loss team. But it’s unlikely this result will do much to push the Huskies up the rankings. Washington will need to get more help this year than it got last year if it wants to get back into the CFP.
But rehabilitation isn’t something that happens overnight, it takes time to get back to full strength. And Saturday’s return to the basics was a good first step in Washington’s recovery.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.