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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: Joe Moore Award-winning Washington OL will test Texas front

The Longhorns will face the best offensive line in college football in the Sugar Bowl.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Oregon at Washington Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU Tigers. The Alabama Crimson Tide. The Michigan Wolverines.

Before the 2023 season, the previous four winners of the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best offensive line won two national championships (LSU in 2019 and Alabama in 2020) and made two more College Football Playoff appearances (Michigan in 2021 and 2022).

So the Washington Huskies offensive line is unquestionably in good company after winning the award last week over 11 other semifinalists with a matchup against the Texas Longhorns in the College Football Playoff semifinals in New Orleans looming next Monday.

“Washington was on the committee’s radar almost immediately due to their rare combination of physicality and athleticism,” said Aaron Taylor, CBS college football analyst and co-founder of the Joe Moore Award. “They got better as the season progressed and consistently stepped up when it mattered. But what seemed to put them over the top was their junkyard dawg demeanor and how they looked to punish and set the tone with their physical style of play. Their level of effort, strain, and physicality is rare for this style of offense, and the voting body seemed to appreciate that.”

Most of the attention paid to the Huskies focuses on quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the Heisman Finalist, and his talented receiving corps, but it’s the big group up front ensuring that Penix has only been sacked 11 times this season, fifth nationally, and only 46 tackles for loss, tied for seventh nationally.

Coached by Scott Huff, a longtime Chris Petersen assistant retained by Jimmy Lake and Kalen DeBoer, the Huskies offensive line excels identifying pressures and stunts, stopping penetration and mirroring loopers on twists while finishing with a rare ability to knock defenders down even though pass protection is often regarded as the passive side of offensive line play.

“Their pass protection impressed me. Only a handful of sacks or pressures, and their ability to keep their shoulders square and remain on the same level and pass off stunts and games impressed me,” said one member of the Joe Moore Award voting body.

“They all seem to be pretty good at resetting their hands and can put the brakes vs. bull rushes and power. Admittedly, they weren’t perfect this year and had a couple games late where the entire offense seemed to be a bit off, but Washington’s offense quietly relies on — and is sustained by — their offensive line.”

Washington largely finished the season strong in the run game. Facing four ranked opponents in the final five games of the season, the Huskies averaged 162.0 rushing yards in those contests, which included games against the No. 4 rush defense, No. 11 rush defense, and the No. 15 rush defense.

The performance against USC was so dominant that it got Trojans defensive coordinator Alex Grinch fired the next day after Huskies running back Dillon Johnson gained 199 of his 256 rushing yards before contact.

“Perfect blend of athleticism and physicality. Love their ability to get out on the perimeter on pin-and-pull schemes and be so effective in space. Also a big fan of their double-team run fits. Foot to foot, hip to hip across the board. They get vertical displacement and have eyes on LBs… and they just fit them, they try to punish them. Especially against Oregon. Despite their style of offense, there is nothing finesse about this group,” said one member of the Joe Moore Award voting body.

Things haven’t always come easily for Washington this season, featuring seven different starters and four different lineups throughout the year. Sixth-year senior center Matteo Mele, who blocked for former Texas star Bijan Robinson as a freshman and sophomore at Salpointe High School in Tuscon, Ariz., suffered a season-ending knee injury during non-conference play. At guard, redshirt junior Julius Beulow missed two games due to injury and played both right and left guard during the season.

One of the most interesting stories surrounding the offensive front is redshirt freshman center Parker Brailsford, who stepped in for Mele. Another Arizona native, Brailsford wasn’t the greatest prospect, given only three stars by 247Sports and very few offers from powerhouse programs. Standing at 6’2 275 pounds, Brailsford is definitely undersized for the center position, but makes up for it with his high football IQ and physicality.

In his first year as the starting center for the Huskies, Brailsford has cemented himself as arguably one of the offensive line’s most impactful pieces in both run and pass blocking schemes. Only allowing one sack, one hit, five hurries, and seven pressures on the year, the young center has had an incredible season.

PFF gave him the most consistent offensive lineman grades on the team with the eighth-highest pass blocking grade in the nation among centers at 85.5, the fifth-highest run blocking grade in the nation among centers at 79.1, and listed him as the seventh-best center in the nation with an overall grade of 79.2 as a redshirt freshman.

Once an afterthought coming out of high school, Brailsford has paved an incredible path this year, becoming arguably the most important piece to this already dominant Husky offensive line. Outside, the offensive line is very strong at the tackle position behind senior left tackle Troy Fautanu and redshirt sophomore right tackle Roger Rosengarten, who hasn’t allowed a single sack all season.

Washington only returned two starters from last year’s Alamo Bowl against Texas, but given the standard set by the 2023 group, the lack of impact from the Longhorns defensive front last season in San Antonio is concerning — Texas had zero sacks and zero tackles for loss as Washington was able to stay ahead of the chains to help convert 11-of-20 third downs and 2-of-3 fourth downs. The only turnover forced by the Horns came on the opening possession and was followed by a three and out.

The emergence of senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat and junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy as the nation’s best interior linemen should change that equation, aided by some recovery time for sophomore Buck end Ethan Burke, who had in-season meniscus surgery, and the addition of freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. as a dangerous pass rusher.

Which side wins the battle in the trenches between the Washington offensive line and Texas defensive line could decide the outcome in New Orleans.

“They are enforcers. Not watchers. They’ll be tested mightily against a stout and athletic Texas front, but they’ll be up for that challenge and won’t back down from anyone for any reason, I promise you that. That’ll be a fair fight and the key matchup to that contest if you ask me,” said one member of the Joe Moore Award voting body.