SEATTLE — Before the 10-2 record or a Fiesta Bowl berth, the story of No. 11 Washington’s season was crisis management.
Namely because of injuries. UW faced losses at defensive back and receiver. But the biggest hit came when the Huskies lost star junior left tackle Trey Adams to a season-ending knee injury in early October.
Trying to find Adams’ replacement going into the second half of the season was a problem. UW would find a solution. All the Huskies did was reconfigure the left side of the line, alter their offensive approach and prepare themselves for next season in the process.
“They played well. I was really proud of those guys,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said of the offensive line’s performance in the second half of the season. “It started with the O-line. They like to run the ball. We ran the ball well and I think (quarterback Jake Browning’s) arm got a little sore being in the cold and not even using it, which is a good problem to have.”
Petersen and Scott Huff, the team’s offensive line coach and running game coordinator, initially filled Adams’ spot by alternating between senior Andrew Kirkland and redshirt freshman Luke Wattenberg.
Kirkland had 35 games of experience while Wattenberg was a former four-star prospect, who Rivals rated as the No. 18 offensive tackle in the nation in 2016.
Both did so well that Huff and Petersen, after two games, kept Wattenberg at left tackle and moved Kirkland to left guard.
The Kirkland-Wattenberg pairing was one of two big changes for the offense. The other? UW’s decision to load up on the run.
Washington struggled replicate its prolific passing attack from 2016 when it reached the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Browning threw for 3,340 yards and 43 touchdowns. This season, he has 2,544 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Petersen said in November that Browning’s numbers dipped because UW was facing tough defenses and the mounting changes in the receiving corps due to injuries coupled with the departure of first-round draft pick John Ross.
As Browning threw less and the Huskies ran more, the decision proved to be a justifiable one with each game.
UW finished 4-1 to end the year and did it by running the ball with success. Junior tailback Myles Gaskin was averaging 89.4 rushing yards and had a total of eight touchdowns before Adams’ injury.
Gaskin, over the final five games, averaged 131 yards and racked up 11 touchdowns.
“It’s just kind of the game plan,” Huskies senior center Coleman Shelton said. “We just go with what we practiced all week. It’s just the game plan, really.”
How Petersen and his staff managed the line’s uncertainty is one of the reasons UW is playing No. 9 Penn State (10-2) in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 30 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
The Huskies’ line will be busy against the Nittany Lions’ front. Penn State is 17th against the run and is allowing 3.38 yards per carry. UW, ranked 38th in rushing offense, is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
“It’s certainly been a busy year for the O-line,” said junior right tackle Kaleb McGary. “We’ve done a lot of running, which we love. You can’t run the ball enough as far as we’re concerned.”
Regardless of what happens against the Nittany Lions, the Huskies’ offensive line could be set up for another strong campaign in 2018.
UW could return up to four players who started along the line at some point this season.
The right side of the line could feature former McGary and Nick Harris. McGary is an All-Pac-12 First Team selection who has started the last 31 games at right tackle. Harris has started all 12 games at at right guard this season.
Shelton’s graduation means UW will need to find a center but the team should have options on the left side.
Adams is said to return for his senior year and could be paired with Wattenberg at left guard. Or in the event Adams goes to the NFL, the Huskies can keep Wattenberg at left tackle.
If so, Wattenberg could be paired with junior Jesse Sosebee, who was the starting left guard for UW’s first eight games this season.
Either way, the Huskies will need to find a way to play Wattenberg.
Both McGary and Shelton raved about Wattenberg creating a role within the offensive line. Shelton said he liked how Wattenberg plays through the whistle and isn’t afraid of contact.
“It’s physically imposing your will over someone else who’s trying to do the same,” McGary said. “It’s you coming out on top and that’s gratification and it just feels good to kind of be the bully.”