Rich Rodriguez stood on the home sideline early Saturday night during his team’s 35-24 win over Utah like a proud papa.
In the span of about 60 seconds, each of his starting offensive linemen came up to the coach who hates huddles with a plea.
“To a man, they were coming off to the sideline and saying, ‘The tempo is big for us, let’s go faster,’ ” Rodriguez relayed. “That tells you they feel pretty confident in their conditioning. I thought it showed up in the drives when we were going fast and they were begging to go faster.”
And you don’t have to know Rodriguez all that well to know faster is always better.
Arizona’s front five put on a clinic Saturday against a Utah defensive line that had dominated against the run all season.
A week before facing the Wildcats, Utah held Stanford to 143 rushing yards and earlier in the season held Oregon State to just 48 yards on the ground. Taking it a step further, Utah hadn’t given up more than 186 rushing yards in a game before being gashed for 300 yards by Arizona.
Sure, All-America running back Ka’Deem Carey deserves credit, but he’s the first to point out most running backs could have gotten through the holes his line opened for him Saturday night against the Utes.
“Early in the game, they were busting them,” Carey said. “They were giving me great holes and then I’d say later on they just got stronger. The blitzes started coming, but they were reading them, picking them up great and the holes were just there.
“I couldn’t have gone anywhere without the offensive line.”
Carey’s second-longest rush against Utah was his first of the game when he found a hole and gained 30 yards. His longest rush was his final carry of the night, when he scored on a 44-yard touchdown.
The running back got a few breathers throughout the game; no one on the line did. The team’s five starters — tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, guards Chris Putton and Cayman Bundage and center Steven Gurrola — played all 88 snaps Saturday night.
“I’m never satisfied, but I think we’re working hard and grinding and it’s a tribute to those guys to have that inner desire to keep competing and to keep fighting,” offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. “That’s what it really comes down to with conditioning is how far will you push your body before you start slowing down? To me, the positive is they kept fighting, they kept grinding and they wanted to play fast.”
So how does an offensive line practice going fast?
By going fast, of course. From water breaks to walk-throughs to actual drills, the UA preaches pep in everything the big boys up front do.
“It just becomes a way of life,” Ebbele said. “You do everything fast. We condition really hard during practice, so the game won’t be as hard. If you see us play, we go way faster in practice than we do in games.
“We try to pride ourselves on conditioning and going real fast. We want to be disciplined and the hardest-working team in America and I think it showed up against Utah.”
Conditioning isn’t the only thing that’s improved for the offensive line; the overall production has also gotten better. Rodriguez and Michalczik mixed and matched the first few games, but the merry-go-round has stopped the last few weeks.
Baucus, Ebbele, Putton, Bundage and Gurrola have playing the most over the past two weeks. Rodriguez said the only other lineman who may push for playing time Saturday at Colorado is sophomore guard/tackle Lene Maiava.
“Lene is going to compete to get in that starting five, whether it’s guard or tackle,” Rodriguez said. “Lene didn’t play in the last game, but we have to get him more reps because he’s a top-six. Whether he’ll be a starter or not, we’ll figure it out by Saturday night.”
But whether it’s with or without Maiava, Michalczik is happy the line is moving in the right direction after a slower start to the season.
“I always tell the guys it’s like we’re climbing a mountain,” Michalczik said. “Every day, you either walk up the mountain or you slide down. We’re going in the right direction, but we still have a lot of steps to take to get to the top of the mountain.”