Returning four starters, Arizona’s offensive line was supposed to be a strength in 2020 but so far it’s been the team’s biggest weakness during its 0-3 start.
The Wildcats have allowed 3.7 sacks per game, tied for the eighth-worst mark in the FBS. It’s grounded what most figured would be an above average passing game.
Meanwhile, the running game is the worst it’s been in years, currently sitting dead last in the Pac-12 in yards per carry (3.6).
The problem is obvious to senior center Josh McCauley.
“O-line and execution,” he said. “We’re having a lot of mental errors, stuff that shouldn’t be happening more than once. And then if it does, it’s really hindering our ability (as an offense).”
The Wildcats surrendered two sacks and nearly 20 hurries against UCLA, putting up just 10 points in the loss. McCauley said the offensive line was caught off guard by a Bruins’ defense that “brought some different stuff, same stuff out of different formations, and stuff that we haven’t seen before.”
“As a group, we’re not always all on the same page and that starts with me,” he said. “So no matter who’s out on that field, we’re gonna step it up and I think we have the right mindset right now. We’re going to come to work this week and we’re going to improve and that’s our goal as a unit right now.”
McCauley said the last two Sundays have been rough for the offensive line. The losses the day before have left them in a sour mood. The bright side is they get another opportunity to right the ship Saturday against a 3-0 Colorado team that is fourth in the Pac-12 in sacks.
The motto in the O-line room right now is to “keep grinding, don’t give up.”
“Adversity has struck and that’s within our room and we got to work harder than we ever have to come out of that with some success, make sure that shows,” McCauley said. “I gotta come in, watch more film, I got to work harder, I got to make sure everybody during practice we’re getting all the reps that we need, the reps that we’re going to see.”
Head coach Kevin Sumlin has been cautious about making changes to the offensive line, noting how all the movement last year took a toll on the unit’s performance.
But he’s had no choice this time. Against UCLA, the Wildcats started walk-on Tyson Gardner at left tackle in place of the injured Jordan Morgan, and Paiton Fears in Gardner’s place at right tackle.
That group got “whipped”, Sumlin said, so he will continue tinkering with it and wouldn’t rule out the possibility of left guard Donovan Laie returning to left tackle, where he started the past two seasons.
“I would say that with Jordan, where he is physically, I would anticipate some changes after the last couple weeks just because of where we are, with where he is physically,” Sumlin said. “We had that discussion yesterday and (Monday) morning, just about getting the right people on the field and where they should be.”
Who the O-line will be blocking for remains unclear. Sumlin declined to give any updates on starting quarterback Grant Gunnell’s shoulder injury.
But no matter if he or true freshman Will Plummer is behind center, any offensive success—and any hope of ending this 10-game losing streak—starts with the offensive line.
“You gotta accomplish your job and do your 1/11th of the offense and I think that’s what we’ve struggled with is not doing our part to help whoever’s back there,” McCauley said. “And we just got to continue to work and get better at doing our own job, and not focus on what other people are doing behind us.
“I think Will performed well. He was a true freshman quarterback playing in his first game, he kind of got thrown into the fire. As an O-line we didn’t really help him out a whole lot. He’s running for his life, he took some shots, and that’s on us. We got to be better.”
McCauley’s knee is “fine” and he never considered opting out like some of his teammates have
McCauley isn’t one to make excuses for himself, but there’s a good reason his play has declined. The senior is playing through a knee injury that forced him to miss most of fall camp and would have kept him out of the Utah game had it not been cancelled due to the coronavirus.
“There’s a couple times where it gets a little banged up but other than that it’s no lasting issues throughout the entire game,” McCauley said. “It’ll hurt for a couple minutes or whatever it is, but other than that I’m fine. I wouldn’t have rushed back to (the) USC (game) if I wasn’t able to play, if I was hurting the team in any way health-wise.”
The Wildcats have seen several players opt out due to injuries and other reasons, but McCauley never considered going that route.
“That’s not really who I am,” he said. “I mean, being able to play on Saturdays and play and get to practice every day, that’s my one of my favorite things. And that time that I was out during almost the entire camp was tough, just not being able to play, getting to watch all my teammates out there and that’s something that just eats me alive, so that’s just I can’t see myself doing.”
The opt outs have thinned the Wildcats’ roster considerably—especially in the secondary—but McCauley doesn’t necessarily see them as a bad thing.
“You got to figure out a way to pull yourself out of this and come to work every single day,” he said. “And that’s kind of hardest thing is you see that some guys have have in fact opted out. ... Those guys are getting out of the building and the guys that want to win are staying here, and I think that’s really good for us.”