BOZEMAN — It was late in a game at Sacramento State on Oct. 1, 2016, and Montana State cornerback Damien Washington was in position to make a game-saving play.
The Bobcats were clinging to a four-point lead, trying to hang on for their first Big Sky Conference victory under new head coach Jeff Choate.
On first down at midfield, Sac State quarterback Nate Ketteringham flung a pass toward the far sideline, where Washington, then a true freshman, was waiting. But a would-be interception slipped right through Washington’s hands and an opportunity was lost.
Six plays later the Hornets scored the go-ahead touchdown with just 15 seconds left. Final score: Sacramento State 41, Montana State 38.
“It would have sealed the game right there,” Washington recalled during a recent interview. “That’s the play I look back on to this day. It doesn’t leave my mind. I won’t forget that one.
“That was a big one for me. That one hurt.”
Now a senior, Washington is set to begin his final season when the Bobcats play FBS Texas Tech on Saturday in Lubbock, Texas. He’s come a long way from that night in Sacramento, having built a reputation as one of the team’s most steady and reliable defensive players.
Washington enters his senior year still in search of his first interception but has otherwise been solid in coverage with nine career pass breakups. He takes pride in being in the right spots and the right time.
“You can count on him to do his job,” senior safety Brayden Konkol said. “You know he’s not going to blow a coverage or miss a workout or miss a meeting. He’s just a good dude and he does his job.”
As an elder statesman among the cornerback group — which will (primarily) be made up of junior Tyrel Thomas, sophomore Ty’Rhae Gibson and redshirt freshman Level Price against Texas Tech — Washington relies on his football intelligence to make up for whatever limitations he may have.
Konkol says Washington could play safety if he had to, simply because he understands the position and the scheme so well.
Choate, now in his fourth year, admits that Washington might never be the kind of man-to-man corner you can leave on an island, but his ability to disguise coverage and read the quarterback are his best traits.
“That’s been his strength as a player, his football intelligence,” Choate said. “He’s got a lot of moxie, a lot of savvy.”
Washington’s journey to MSU is unique because he had verbally committed to the team during his senior season at Charter Oak High School in Covina, California, while Rob Ash was still the Bobcats’ head coach. Washington’s primary recruiter at the time was assistant coach Michael Pitre.
When Choate was named Ash’s successor in December of 2015, Washington remained faithful to MSU. Part of it had to do with the fact that Pitre was retained on Choate’s first staff as running backs coach, but part of it also had to do with a sense of loyalty.
“I just stuck with it. I’m kind of a commitment guy,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys who says I’ll do something and then not do it. I trusted my gut. It worked out great for me.”
The Bobcats have been blessed with Washington’s ability to lead by example — and with one of the most infectious smiles on the team — ever since.
Time has flown by for Washington, and he carries a sense of urgency for his final season at MSU.
“Last year I felt like I had a really solid year, started a lot of games and played a lot of football,” he said. “This year is my last shot. I’m ready to just give it all I’ve got for my last go-round.”
It begins Saturday against the Big 12’s Texas Tech at Jones AT&T Stadium, where the Bobcats will be under the gun against what figures to be a fast and furious Red Raiders offense. Washington and the rest of MSU’s defensive backfield will have their hands full.
In their previous stop together at Utah State, Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells and offensive coordinator David Yost were the architects of one of the nation’s best offenses, one that frequently produced 50-point games and 500-yard outings.
It’s difficult to know for sure how it will all mesh for Wells and Yost in their first game at a new program and with different personnel, but the Bobcats are anticipating a balanced, big-play attack.
“They pose a big challenge. A very up-tempo offense. The receivers are very athletic, long, quick, fast. Quarterback has a very good arm. O-line is good,” Washington said. “They just have a very solid team and they’re going to do well in their conference.
“It’s a big challenge for us, but it gives us a chance to show up and see what kind of team we are. To really show up and go out there and earn our respect, play our hearts out and see what happens at the end of the day.”