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Unheralded line key to Arizona's success

12/3/2014


Without Arizona's offensive line play, there probably wouldn't be stories about quarterback Anu Solomon or running back Nick Wilson or the Wildcats' outstanding wide receiver corps.

And there definitely wouldn't be stories about Arizona winning the Pac-12 South Division and squaring off with the Oregon Ducks in Friday's Pac-12 championship game.

This is not a heralded bunch. When the all-conference teams were released Monday night, only center Steven Gurrola was named to the second-team all-league squad. No one else even got an honorable mention.

Yet this group helped the Wildcats produce the No. 4 rushing offense in the conference, averaging nearly 190 yards per game -- and they were second to only Oregon in rushing touchdowns (23). The 'Cats were also fourth in total offense (481.2 yards per game) and scoring offense (36.7 points) while staying in the upper-half in the league (5th) in sacks allowed. As good as Arizona's skill players have been, the offensive line at least had a little something to do with that success.

No matter. They don't want the attention anyway. They'll leave that to Solomon and Wilson and the receivers.

"We're happy those guys are having success, because that means we're having success as a team," said left tackle Mickey Baucus. "We just want to go out there and do our business. If an offensive lineman's name is getting called, it's usually because he gave up a sack or committed a penalty. We just like to do our stuff in the background and win football games."

Added Gurrola: "It's part of the position. We're not looking to get our names out there."

While the line has gone mostly unnoticed by the masses, it has certainly caught the attention of Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. He saw its handiwork first hand earlier this year when the Wildcats rushed for 208 yards and totaled 495 yards in their 31-24 win against the Ducks in Eugene.

"They've done a really nice job," Helfrich said. "They are huge on the edges. Huge tackles. They look ginormous, 6-7, 6-8, 3-something. And they can move. They do a great job with all the run-pass stuff. It's literally difficult to see the ball just by their sheer size, whether it's a give or a keep by the quarterback, a keep by the quarterback and a throw. They do a great job of providing a level of deception just from their girth."

Experience on the line has been key this season for the Wildcats. Baucus will be making his 51st start in the conference championship game and right tackle Fabbians Ebbele has started 48. That gives the 'Cats 99 starts on the edges. Gurrola has started 26 games and guard Cayman Bundage has started 24.

"That experience has helped," said coach Rich Rodriguez. "We haven't always dominated. We've played some really good fronts. Sometimes they've won, sometimes we've won. But our guys, because they have been through the battles, so many battles and so many games, there's not a lot of things that they'll see throughout the course of a game they haven't seen before and they can't adjust to. From a scheme standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint, we've been really good up front."

The Wildcats have also been blessed with consistency. The trio of Baucus, Gurrola and Ebbele has started every game this season. Bundage has started 11 of 12 and redshirt freshman Jacob Alsadek has started nine. Lene Maiava has seen spot duty, starting four games at either guard position. So for nine of Arizona's 12 games they have had the same starting five up front.

That continuity has helped the Wildcats gut out some tough wins. Seven times this season their games have been decided by seven or fewer points. And Arizona is 6-1 in those tight games.

"Just because we've been there before, we don't get rattled that easily," Baucus said. "The biggest thing about us as a group is we're fighters. We've been down in some games, but we fight all 60 minutes. That's why we've been so successful in a lot of those close games."

Perhaps Friday's title game will be a nail-biter as well? The first meeting was decided by a touchdown. But neither team is putting much stock in the "rematch" element.

"They are a good team, but so are we," Baucus said. "We're just excited to play for a championship."