Keenum, Potts and now Gaskin!
By Troy Phillips, www.theheartofdallasbowl.com
Not since Houston’s Case Keenum in 2012 and Texas Tech’s Taylor Potts in 2011 had the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl seen this kind of skill talent on display.
Records are a good measuring stick, and for a bowl in just its sixth year of existence, outstanding players and performances tend to stick out.
Keenum’s 532 yards passing and 69 attempts, and Potts’ five total TDs (five passing) - both performances coming in victories - made the first two years of the ZHODB memorable. But Washington and Southern Mississippi added the latest chapter with flair Saturday.
Washington (7-6) pulled away in the fourth quarter after Southern Miss (9-5) rallied to tie at 24-24 late in the third. The Huskies’ Myles Gaskin kept pouring on rushing yards and touchdowns in Washington’s 44-31 victory at the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Fair Park.
Despite the outcome, skill players for both offenses kept it mostly up for grabs, giving second-year title sponsor Zaxby’s and the ESPN audience the game’s closest outcome since Texas Tech’s 45-38 win over Northwestern in the bowl’s inaugural year.
The seven combined rushing touchdowns surpassed the previous mark of five scored by Northwestern and Texas Tech in 2011.
Threatening weather in the North Texas region held off barely long enough to avoid a delay. Tornados were spotted in the downtown Dallas area, prompting a post-game evacuation of Cotton Bowl Stadium personnel, media, bowl staff and others still on duty.
The just-in-time trophy presentation saw Gaskin become the first running back named the ZHODB’s most valuable player after notching game records for rushing yards (181), touchdowns (four) and attempts (26), and tying the mark for the longest rushing TD (86 yards).
Eric Stephens of Texas Tech (2011) was the previous holder of all four marks and still holds the unofficial ZHODB mark for yards per carry (9.0).
Myles set new records, but players from both teams give ESPN no shortage of highlights. USM receiver Mike Thomas had nine catches for 190 yards and two scores. He seemed the most NFL-ready player on the field, particularly when tilting way back to snag Nick Mullens’ 36-yard pass over Thomas’ right shoulder.
The play set up Ito Smith’s 1-yard touchdown to pull USM with 21-17 at halftime. Smith, a shifty-but-powerful sophomore with a seemingly bright future at USM if he stays all four years, rushed for two TDs and caught five passes
“We hung in there against a good team,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “If we keep working like we have for the last several weeks of the season, have a chance to be a good team down the road.”
Thomas’ drop on a long sideline route in the fourth quarter prevented him from going well over 200 yards receiving and maybe passing Houston’s Patrick Edwards, who had 228 yards in 2011.
Washington sacked USM quarterback Mullens four times, perhaps minimizing the damage he inflicted (331 yards, two TDs) on a number of drives. Mullens, who’s expected to show up on several quarterback award watch lists before the 2016 season, had the third-most completions (25) in a ZHODB behind (Potts (43) and Keenum (45).
Washington’s Jaydon Mickens scored on his only carry from 29 yards in the second quarter. USM mostly kept Washington senior wideout Marvin Hall in check (69 all-purpose yards). The Huskies should give the Pac-12 fits the next few years with speedy, direction-changing backs, receivers and returners like Gaskin, Chico McClatcher and Dante Pettis.
“They will be really good,” Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. “We just, obviously, didn’t play our best defensively.”
Gaskin was the back-breaker for USM, answering on a one-play drive on his 86-yard run to effectively end the Golden Eagles’ last threat. Individually, he tilted the MVP consideration away from Thomas, who to that point had been mostly uncoverable.
“We just didn’t find a way to get [Gaskin] on the ground,” Monken said. “We had a couple of dropped passes that stopped us that would have helped us out. It’s about making plays, and we kind of unraveled a little bit.”