Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez seemed unaware that his Wildcats had just broken the school rushing record — again.
“What record? Oh … that’s nice,” Rodriguez quipped late Saturday night.
Arizona rushed for 534 yards in its 49-28 victory over Oregon State — 23 more than in last year’s Territorial Cup. Three Wildcats rushed for more than 100 yards in that record-setting game. Three different Wildcats did against the Beavers.
The common denominator? The offensive line.
Three of the five players who started against Arizona State started against OSU. Cody Creason, who started against the Sun Devils, alternated at right tackle against the Beavers. Christian Boettcher, who started at left guard Saturday, played in the ASU game.
Whether he realized Arizona had reset the school rushing record or not, Rodriguez knew who was largely responsible for it.
“The big guys up front will probably take the most pride in that,” Rodriguez said.
They did. Their spokesman, fifth-year senior right guard Jacob Alsadek, was beaming on the postgame podium — although he thought the Wildcats had even more yards than they did.
“I thought it was up in the 550s,” Alsadek said. “Obviously, that’s a big thing for all of us. It’s really cool. Especially up front.”
Offensive linemen rarely get any publicity — unless one of them surrenders a sack. But this particular group is the driving force behind Arizona’s offense, which ranks third in the nation in scoring (44.4 points per game) and rushing (347.7 yards per game) and sixth in total yards (516.5). The unit also hasn’t allowed a sack in five of the past six games.
“They blocked great. They always block great. It’s nothing new,” said tailback J.J. Taylor, who rushed for 129 yards against Oregon State. “The offensive linemen are probably the best players on the field. They’re the smartest players on the field, too. They just did their thing tonight.”
Besides Alsadek, Boettcher and Creason, the other regulars are left tackle Layth Friekh, center Nathan Eldridge and right tackle Gerhard de Beer. Four of the six are departing seniors, including Boettcher, who has elected to stop playing football after this season. Eligibility-wise, Boettcher is a redshirt junior.
“A great group of guys,” Rodriguez said. “Guys like Gerhard de Beer and Christian Boettcher that walked on and made themselves starters. Layth Friekh has been a multiyear starter. Jacob Alsadek has been a four-year starter, a self-made player.
“They give a lot of leadership. There’s not much they haven’t seen throughout their careers. Boy, they come to work every day.”
That’s the mindset all offensive linemen must have, Alsadek said. They’re the biggest guys on the field, and they have the most thankless job.
“We don’t look pretty,” Alsadek said, “but we’ll beat you up.”
The beauty of Arizona’s current offensive structure is that there’s no profound mystery to it. With Khalil Tate at quarterback, and a deep stable of running backs, the Wildcats are going to run the ball no matter the situation or the defensive alignment. They have more than twice as many rushing attempts (474) as passing attempts (213) this season.
“We’re going to beat you, pretty much,” Alsadek said. “That’s what we live for up front. You know where we’re going; we’re still going to win.”
The line will look different next season. As things currently stand, four of the five starters will have to be replaced.
Alsadek and his fellow seniors are doing their best to instill the proper mindset in their successors. It’s a big adjustment, Alsadek said, when the other team has defensive linemen who are just as strong and stout.
“A lot of times the younger guys, they get frustrated,” Alsadek said. “When you were in high school, you’re way bigger than everybody You hit ’em down one time and they’re done, on the ground.
“But once you get to college, you’re going against bigger guys. You don’t really get that same feeling. You’ve really gotta work a little bit harder. Just not getting discouraged by that. Just keep grinding.”
The current group will grind it out for three more games, starting with Saturday’s trip to Oregon. The regular season wraps up the following week at ASU. A bowl game will follow.
The offensive line’s legacy is still being written. Its imprint is felt daily.
“During practice, we go against them a little bit,” freshman linebacker Colin Schooler said. “It’s a little rough for us sometimes. They do what they do, and they do it well.”
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