A day after University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian announced that Erik Kohler’s dislocated kneecap would keep the junior offensive lineman out indefinitely, the Huskies practiced Tuesday without another offensive lineman. Sophomore Colin Tanigawa was on the sideline, his right knee wrapped.
Both Kohler and Tanigawa are starting guards, veterans of a group still reeling from the springtime news that the well-regarded Colin Porter was retiring from football because of degenerative arthritis in both shoulders and, more recently, the broken forearm right tackle Ben Riva sustained in the season opener.
If Tanigawa’s apparent knee injury prevents him from playing against Portland State on Saturday, it means center Drew Schaefer is the lone healthy starter of the offensive line that figured to serve as the team’s backbone six months ago. No wonder the Huskies’ offense, which found the end zone eight times in the 2011 Alamo Bowl, has been held to two touchdowns in two games – and none over the past seven quarters.
No wonder Sarkisian told reporters Monday that his team’s ragged play during its 1-1 start “makes me want to puke, quite honestly.”
When it comes to sharing information, Sark is not known for, uh, spilling the beans. But the Huskies’ problems – specifically, their inability to generate any kind of offensive flow behind a patchwork front line – had him volunteering too much information.
On the bright side, Portland State is not LSU. The Vikings, who beat Carroll College of the NAIA before losing at North Dakota, are traveling to CenturyLink Field for a payday to supplement the school’s modest athletic department budget.
Anything is possible, of course – No. 8 Arkansas got stunned Saturday by Louisiana-Monroe – but if Washington’s struggle to score continues against Portland State, Sarkisian’s stomach woes will seem minor and not nearly as gross as the horror-movie scene seemingly scripted from a Brian De Palma movie: The poor guy’s head will explode.
After the anticipated clock-cleaning of PSU, the Huskies get a week off before taking on Stanford, Oregon and USC. Somewhere during that daunting stretch of the schedule, it’s possible Kohler and Riva could return. (Hey, it’s easy for sportswriters to estimate a player’s injury-recovery timetable. Between us? If I dislocated a kneecap, or broke a forearm, I’d be thinking about returning to my press box seat sometime in 2015.)
It’s possible, too, that the wrap around Tanigawa’s right knee – and the right-left distinction is important, because he’s already had surgery on his left knee – is strictly precautionary. The coach wasn’t made available to speak to reporters at practice Tuesday, nor was Tanigawa or anybody else on the offensive line. Sarkisian will update fans on Tanigawa’s status today.
In the meantime, be prepared for the musical-chair phase of an offensive line that has yet to move in rhythm. During a “first team” drill Tuesday, the line looked like this: Mike Criste at right tackle, James Atoe at right guard, Schaefer at center, Siosifa Tufunga at left guard, and Dexter Charles at left tackle.
While not a Who’s Who lineup of blue-chip talent – it’s more like a collection of Who’s He? castaways – there are reasons these guys were awarded scholarships.
Charles, a redshirt freshman, was an all-level, all-state player at Stanwood High in 2010 who impressed coaches with a solid spring camp. So did Atoe, a 6-foot-6, 335-pounder from Oregon who profiles more as a tackle but who made his college debut at guard against LSU.
Criste, a sophomore from Mission Viejo, Calif., has been listed in the Huskies’ pregame notes at 6-5 and 695, which seems a tad on the heavy side. His coach sees potential.
“If he can take the next step from a physicality standpoint,” Sarkisian said of Criste on Monday, “he’s talented enough to do it, but he really needs to let himself go to play a physical brand of football.”
In other words, Criste, like the rest of the “Who’s He?” offensive line, needs to assert himself.
“Those guys will step up and do their job,” tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said after practice. “Dexter Charles and James Atoe will do fine. We’re not worried about the offensive line.
“People get hurt in football; it’s the nature of the sport. The offensive linemen will concentrate on their assignments, and as a tight end, I’ll concentrate on mine.”
For those pessimists inclined to look at the UW offensive line’s forecast as bleak, some perspective is in order. Another UW – the University of Wisconsin – looks at the offensive line as its very identity. The Big Ten Badgers pride themselves on huge but mobile athletes creating running space for the likes of 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and 2012 candidate Montee Ball.
But after Wisconsin’s sluggish performances in a victory over Northern Iowa, followed by a 10-7 defeat at Oregon State, coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson, who was hired in January.
The Badgers are accustomed to rolling up 3,000 rushing yards a season. Saturday in Corvallis, on an afternoon the line allowed four sacks, they produced 207 yards of total offense. So the new line coach is gone, after two games.
It’s scary to envision a bunch of untested kids positioned in the trenches against Stanford, against Oregon, against USC. But take some consolation: The UW’s offensive line is not the most unstable unit in college football.
The UW’s offensive line, for that matter, is not even the most unstable unit at a school known as UW.
Hope that makes you feel better.
As for Steve Sarkisian? He’s on his own, at least until his head explodes.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com