ATLANTA -- Washington coach Chris Petersen became known for his trickery during the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, when his Boise State team ran three trick plays during critical moments in an upset of Oklahoma. Then came Boise State’s fake punt in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl win over TCU ... and then the Broncos’ double pass to upset Washington in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl ... and then Washington’s double pass to upset USC in 2015.
The list goes on.
Petersen has used trick plays so often, and they’ve become such a part of his persona as a coach, that the psychology of it all becomes a circle that opposing coaches can get stuck in as they prepare to face him. They don’t know what Petersen might pull out of his hat, or whether he will pull something out of his hat, and he has used them so much that maybe the trick at this point in his career is not using any trick plays.
In preparing his team for the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App), Alabama coach Nick Saban has considered all of those possibilities.
“They don't just use trick plays, they're very effective at executing those plays as a part of their offense,” Saban said. “When you look at the whole sort of catalog of all those trick plays, it's a pretty significant amount of work that you need to do to try to defend those things.”
Lucky for Saban, there’s one part of the offense that he might not have to worry about for trick plays -- the offensive line.
And the Washington offensive line isn’t too thrilled about that.
They’ve noticed that when Petersen dials up anything sneaky, it usually involves a running back, wide receiver or a specialist. They -- the 300-pound guys with their hands in the dirt -- never get their numbers called.
“I think it’s just principle -- they let the skinny, pretty guys go do it,” offensive tackle Kaleb McGary said.
And for most of their careers, they have settled for blocking for the skinny, pretty guys. But then in early October, a source of inspiration came from the ACC.
In a game against Georgia Tech, Pitt offensive tackle Brian O’Neill (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) ran in a 24-yard touchdown and something clicked for the players. Petersen’s phone blew up with messages from his own offensive linemen wondering when the Huskies and their trick-play-pondering coach might throw in something of the O-line variety.
Offensive tackle Trey Adams texted Petersen to see if the Huskies could, at a bare minimum, “put that in the game plan or the playbook,” while center Coleman Shelton took a more direct approach, cornering Petersen at the football offices.
“Just keep that [play] in the back of your mind,” Shelton told him. “Just in case.”
Their arguments for offensive line trick plays ranged from dream fulfillment to paying back the workhorses who make every other offensive play possible, which wide receiver John Ross III thought was fair.
“Those guys work hard day in and day out,” he said. “Why not give them a chance to run the ball?”
It was Shelton who made possibly the strongest argument, or at least the most Petersen-like argument: With a coach who has a propensity for the trick play, there would be no greater surprise than a 300-pounder getting involved -- who would see that coming?
“Not many people think you’re going to hand the ball to an offensive lineman who’s going to run around and score,” Shelton explained. “I think it’s just being the unexpected, another wrinkle in the game.”
But alas, even with such compelling arguments, no trick play has come down the pike for the Washington offensive line yet, so the linemen have been left to wonder: Where is the love? Will they ever have a moment in the sun? Does it matter?
“When you play offensive line,” guard Jake Eldrenkamp said, “you know you're not going to have many of those moments.”
Or maybe that’s exactly what they want Alabama to think.