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Sunday, January 9, 2011
Auburn O-line paves way for Tigers

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton knows he wouldn't have won the Heisman Trophy without the help of his senior-laden offensive line.

Tigers center Ryan Pugh says All-America defensive tackle Nick Fairley owes the unit a thank-you card, too.

"He wouldn't have won the Lombardi Award against us," Pugh said. "We helped him win the Lombardi because we took everybody else out of the race."

Auburn offensive line
Auburn's senior-laden offensive line has paved the way for QB Cam Newton this season.

Newton, who became only the third player in FBS history to score 20 touchdowns rushing and passing in the same season, gets a lot of credit for the No. 1 Tigers' success this season. But Auburn wouldn't be playing No. 2 Oregon in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium without the stellar work of its mammoth offensive line.

"They've been a big part of our success," Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "Last year, they were trying to learn the offense. We try to go fast and a lot of times it's hard for the coaches to see everything on the field. We really rely on our players and this year those four seniors did a good job of bringing accurate information to the sideline."

Few offensive lines in the country have as much experience as Auburn's front five, who have 161 career starts combined. All-America left tackle Lee Ziemba has started 51 consecutive games, the longest such streak in school history, and Pugh has started 41 in a row. Guards Mike Berry (34 straight) and Byron Isom (31) are three-year starters.

Right tackle Brandon Mosley, a junior-college transfer, was the only new starter on the offensive line this season.

"I felt like they had an opportunity to be good," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "I felt like there was a lot of experience going into the season, and I felt like there are better days that were ahead of them for sure. I feel like from about ballgame No. 3 on, we really challenged them. We didn't feel like they were playing up to the potential that they had, and we challenged them."

Auburn has already shattered school records with 555 points scored and 6,470 yards of offense gained. The Tigers are ranked fourth nationally in scoring (42.7 points per game), fifth in rushing (287.2 yards per game) and seventh in total offense (497.7 yards).

"The four seniors have put in a lot of time together," Pugh said. "We've been through losing seasons and winning seasons and now we're playing for a national championship."

Lee Ziemba
Lee Ziemba has made 51 consecutive starts for the Tigers.

Each of the Tigers' starting offensive linemen weighs more than 290 pounds, with Ziemba tipping the scales at 319 pounds and Berry at 316. The Ducks' four starting defensive linemen have an average weight of 258 pounds.

"I hope it's a big advantage, but the way they offset it is by moving," Malzahn said. "We've got bigger players, but we've got to stay on track because they move around so much."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly doesn't seem overly concerned about Auburn's size advantage up front. His defense has compensated for its lack of size with blitzes and pressure; the Ducks are ranked No. 18 nationally with 2½ sacks per game and seventh with 7½ tackles for loss.

"We're here, aren't we?" Kelly quipped on Friday.

The Tigers have been especially good at protecting Newton, who led the country in pass efficiency with a 188.2 rating and led the SEC in rushing with 108.4 yards per game. Auburn's quarterbacks were sacked only 21 times in 474 pass attempts.

"We have to make sure we get our hands on them and play hard," Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair said.

Auburn's four senior linemen will be together for one more night.

"What better way to have it end than in this game?" Ziemba said. "All good things come to an end, but this is a hell of a way to end it."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.