Ball at the 25. Three-point lead. Four minutes and 40 seconds left against USC.
A true freshman is at left guard. The left guard is at left tackle. The center and right guard are injury replacements. Arizona’s backup quarterback, B.J. Denker, had just come into the game for an ailing Matt Scott.
No way were the Wildcats going to pass the ball.
“When everyone in the stadium knows you are going to run it, that’s the time you have to do it,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
For a team that plays fast and ranks high in all the national stats in offense, it was the ensuing 19-yard drive — before a delay-of-game penalty at the end — that will go down as one of the season’s highlights.
“It’s satisfying for the offensive line because we pride ourselves in getting better in the run game,” said starting junior guard Chris Putton, who also has been rotating at left tackle with Mickey Baucus.
“We put our minds to it. Come off the ball. Whoever wants it more is going to win it.”
Arizona handed off to Ka’Deem Carey seven consecutive times.
Nine yards, then 2 yards. First down.
Six yards, then USC’s second timeout of the half. Four yards. First down.
A loss of 1. USC’s final timeout. No gain. Loss of one.
Delay of game before the punt.
“I would have liked to see us get that last first down and then just knee the clock out,” said offensive line coach Robert Anae.
“But very excited. It was mission accomplished when we took their timeouts and we drained the clock. Then, I’ll be darned, the punter comes out and knocks that thing right to the 10 with no return. That’s good football. That’s really good football.”
In what very well might be the most significant punt of senior Kyle Duganzic’s career, he rugby punted the ball 48 yards along the right sideline, forcing Robert Woods to make the catch going out of bounds at the 13.
“It was exactly where I wanted it,” Dugandzic said.
With 55 seconds left, the Arizona offense had put the Trojans into a hole that was just deep enough. The Cats held on to win 39-36.
There was plenty of credit to go around. Carey, as usual, ran hard and fought for just enough yardage on UA’s final possession. Dugandzic did his best impersonation of Josh Miller 20 years ago against top-ranked Washington.
Mostly, it was a signature moment for the offensive line.
The line hasn’t been great — Rodriguez almost weekly talks about the need for more push, more physical play up front — but it has held together through injuries, helping the offense average 553.6 yards and 39.1 points per game. Scott hasn’t been sacked in the past two games.
“I’ve been proud of them because we’re just kind of a patchwork line and have had a different lineup just about every week,” Rodriguez said.
Arizona has started four different combinations up front in the past five games.
Addison Bachman has replaced starting center Kyle Quinn, who has missed three-and-half games because of an ankle injury. Putton has started at both guard spots, in addition to playing tackle. Shane Zink has started the past four games for Trace Biskin, who returned from a toe injury to play as a reserve vs. USC. True freshman Cayman Bundage is seeing ample time at left guard.
“I think we have done a pretty good job of holding together as a family,” Putton said.
As far as other personnel problems, tackle Jack Baucus (knee) and guard Carter Lees never made it to the season and are no longer on the roster. Redshirt freshman tackle Jacob Arzouman suffered a torn ACL in fall camp. Redshirt freshman Lene Maiava was in the rotation at tackle before he tore his ACL last month.
“Well, I don’t look at it as a patchwork deal,” Anae said.
“Guys who are playing have earned that. They earned that. To me, if you have a patchwork approach, the guys are playing out of default. We’ve had some injuries, so there has been some of that, but I don’t like to look at it as a guy is playing out of default.
“I like to look at it as a guy has earned his time to play and deserves to be on the field.”
Rodriguez said the Cats used six offensive linemen two weeks ago in the win over Washington. With Biskin’s return, the rotation went to seven. When Quinn gets back, it’s up to eight.
“We’ve been able to win with those eight players,” Anae said.
“At this point of the year, that’s a really big plus, because a lot of teams are playing with fewer who haven’t won. I really like the progress as the O-line as a group. I look at it as a team effort.”
The offensive line might be a work in progress, might still need to “move people” better, as Rodriguez puts it. But there was just enough movement, enough push, against USC when it mattered the most.
That’s good football.
“We jelled as a team at a very critical point of the game,” Anae said. “And it turned out in our favor.”