5:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ohio State -6.5, Over/Under: 57.5
What better way to bring in the New Year than with a return to tradition for arguably the most celebrated Bowl in College Football, as the No. Nine Washington Huskies represent the Pac-12 against the No. Five Ohio State Buckeyes, representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, from that same venue in Pasadena, California. Believe it or not, this is first trip to the Rose Bowl for Washington (10-3, 8-2 in Pac-12) since 2000, with the Pac-12 Champions having been occupied with grander things the last time they sat atop their venerable league; in 2016 the Huskies went 12-2, but suffered defeat in the College Football Playoff to Alabama. Now in his fifth season in Seattle, in which he has amassed a stellar 47-20 record (.701), Chris Peterson would gladly settle for a trip to Pasadena, a good consolation prize for a team that had dreams of a return to the Playoff. For now, they’ll be focused on achieving another 11-win campaign, which despite being their second in the past three seasons, would be just their fourth since 1980, and winning what would be only their fourth Bowl in nine years. Literally, the only blemish on his record, Washington has dropped three out of four Bowls since Peterson arrived on campus in 2014, including each of the last two. Their most recent was last year’s Fiesta Bowl, a 28-35 defeat to Penn State, which wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would suggest, with the denizens of the northwest trailing 7-28 midway through the Second Quarter.
The story of the 2018 Huskies is that of one that rallied down the stretch after initially struggling to live up their lofty expectations. This veteran-laden team began the term coming up short in the Season Opener against No. Nine Auburn 16-21 on a neutral field (or at least as neutral as field in Atlanta, Georgia could be), before stringing together five consecutive victories, before falling in another nail-biter, this time a 27-30 epic on the road at Oregon in Overtime. Two weeks later, any hopes of a trip to the Playoff were shattered in an ugly 10-12 loss at middling California, an opponent that went 4-5 in league play. Fortunately, Petersen’s charged righted the ship and won their final three outings (including a 28-15 win over bitter rival Washington State) heading into the Pac-12 Championship, where they smothered No. Seventeen Utah in a 10-3 defensive battle. Level at 3-3 late in the Third Quarter, Washington Cornerback Byron Murphy (56 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 1 FF, 4 INT, 13 PD, 1 TD) provided the only Touchdown between the two combatants, intercepting an errant Jason Shelley Pass (his second of the day) for a 66-Yard Score. The eventual Champs relegated the Utes to a scant Twelve First Downs and 188 Total Yards, while forcing Three Turnovers.
With an Offense beset throughout the year by injuries, the Defense has been the clear strength of this team, and for all intents and purposes, the reason for even being in this position. In 2018, Petersen’s Defense has held the opposition to just 15.5 Points per Game (5th Overall) on 301.8 Total Yards, including 185.4 Yards against the Pass and another 116.4 Yards versus the Run, all the while registering Nineteen Takeaways (Eleven of which were Interceptions), Fifty-Seven Tackles for Loss, and Twenty-One Sacks. This is a unit that is littered with future NFL Talent, folks, led by the aforementioned Murphy, Senior Linebackers Ben Burr-Kirven (165 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 4 FF, 3 FR, 2 INT, 6 PD) and Tevis Bartlett (67 TKL, 5.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD), and Defensive Back Taylor Rapp (58 TKL, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 SK, 3 FR, 2 INT, 4 PD). Washington have yielded fewer and fewer yards with each passing game, and have made a slew of big plays, logging Ten Takeaways in the last four games alone, all but of which were Interceptions. While today’s contest will be the final showing for many of these fine defenders, it will also be the last hurrah for a pair prominent Seniors on the opposite side of the football, namely Quarterback Jake Browning (65.0%, 2,879 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 16 TD, 10 INT) and Tailback Myles Gaskin (235 CAR, 1,147 YDS, 10 TD). It seems like Browning has been at Washington forever, and pardon us if it feels even longer since his unreal 2016 campaign in which he threw a school-record Forty-Three Touchdowns and finished Sixth in the Heisman voting. Unfortunately, Browning has regressed significantly since his Sophomore term, having tossed Thirty-Five Touchdowns and Fifteen Interceptions over the past two years. Gaskin has been in Seattle for ages, and despite a down year largely spent hampered by injuries that robbed him of his explosiveness, managed to set the school-record for Rushing Yards (5,202 YDS).
Meanwhile, the theme of saying goodbye doesn’t only fit the Huskies, for this game will be defined by that notion for Ohio State (12-1, 9-1 in Big Ten), who will likely see the departures of a slew of prominent figures, none more so than their Head Coach Urban Meyer. This has been far from the smoothest of seasons for Meyer, who began the year suspended for the team’s first three outings after an ugly domestic violence scandal involving one of his former Assistant Coaches commanded the headlines of the College Football World, with many believing that it would ultimately cost him his job. The Buckeyes responded by winning each of their first three contests without Meyer in rather comfortable fashion, disposing of the likes of Oregon State (77-31), Rutgers (52-3), and TCU (40-28) by a combined score of 169-62. Indeed, Interim Head Coach Ryan Day did a remarkable job in his mentor’s stead, endearing himself so much to the Program, that he will become the Head Coach immediately after Meyer steps down from his position following this Rose Bowl. What the future has in store for Ohio State is up for debate, but in the meantime, we’ll choose to focus on the present, and this, the final time we will see one of the most successful Head Coaches in College Football History ply his trade on the sidelines.
Given all the controversy surrounding him this season, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to proclaim that in his last season in Columbus, Urban Meyer successfully pulled off his greatest coaching job. Scandal aside, there was already a great deal of adversity for the Three-Time National Champion to deal with. First and foremost, the Buckeyes lost a wealth of talented players to the NFL Draft, which being nothing new to the Program, is still a very real hurdle to deal with, for a very young Defense was forced into a proverbial baptism by fire from the outset. This wasn’t made any easier with the departure of Junior Defensive End Nick Bosa from the Program. Pegged by many as the No. One Overall Pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Bosa (77 TKL, 29.0 TFL, 17.5 SK from 2016 to 2018) opted to end his collegiate career after suffering an abdominal injury in just the third game of the season,that required core muscle surgery. While arguably the best player on his Defense opted to protect his Draft Stock, Meyer and his Staff were forced to shuffle the deck yet again. On top of all of that, he also had to usher in a new Starting Quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, who had to replace one of the most successful and decorated Quarterbacks in Ohio State History, J.T. Barrett. Fortunately for all parties involved, this one was a home run.
To say that the highly-recruited Haskins exceeded expectations would be an understatement, for the Redshirt Sophomore was nothing short of sensational in 2018, which in all likelihood will be his only year starting in Columbus. Projected by many to be the first Quarterback selected in the NFL Draft, Haskins shattered the record book at Ohio State, completing 70.2% of his Attempts for 4,508 Passing Yards, with Forty-Seven Touchdowns and just Eight Interceptions. Furthermore, he presided over an Offense that averaged a staggering 43.5 Points per Game (7th Overall) on a nation-leading 548.9 Total Yards, including a whopping 367.0 Yards through the air. However, the Heisman Finalist didn’t truly start picking up steam until the final quarter of the year in which he laid his claim to the game’s most prestigious award. First, Haskins rescued the Buckeyes time and again in a 52-51 thriller at Maryland, in which the Signal-Caller accounted for a ridiculous 464 Total Yards and Six Touchdowns. The following week against bitter rival Michigan, he torched one of the staunchest Defenses in the country for another 396 Yards and Six more Touchdowns in a 62-39 statement win, which featured the most points scored by the Buckeyes in the storied history of the rivalry. Finally, in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, Haskins crowned his team as league champs once again, completing 34-of-41 Passes for a career-high 499 Yards, and Five Touchdowns. We can’t wait to see what he has in store against Washington’s stellar Defense.