No. 9 UCLA O-line preps for No. 10 Oregon, raucous Autzen
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Atonio Mafi understands No. 9 UCLA’s long, slow road to success under coach Chip Kelly better than most.
“All I know is we started off 0-5 my freshman year, and now we’re 6-0, so definitely, like I took the time to realize how far we’ve come as not just my class but the program in general,” Mafi said. “But obviously, we’re on to the next. You know, the main focus is to go 7-0.”
Going into their third straight game against a ranked opponent at No. 10 Oregon on Saturday, it will be up to left guard Mafi and rest of the Bruins’ offensive line to handle the most intimidating and inhospitable venue in the Pac-12.
Autzen Stadium, which is expected to attract another beyond capacity crowd of more than 54,000 fans, represents the second road test of the season for UCLA (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12).
Their first, a comfortable 45-17 early afternoon win at a flailing Colorado on Sept. 24, was a far cry from the hostile reception they will receive from the Ducks (5-1, 3-0), with the intensity ratcheted up by a visit from ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
“It’s going to be loud in there, especially on third downs, so we’ve got the crowd noise pumping out here at practice trying to emulate that, but you never really know how it is until you’re in it,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said.
Mafi said the key to handling such an environment is communication, verbal and non-verbal.
Asked to describe what the latter looks like on the football field, Mafi said: “Oh, just like eye contact, you know. Like if you’re looking at me and I’m saying something to you, I’m assuming you can hear me.”
However that dialogue happens, the front five has been able to put it into action successfully. The Bruins rank second in the conference in yards per carry (5.49) and yards rushing per game (211.5).
The Ducks have the Pac-12’s saltiest run defense, allowing 98 yards per game. Their defensive line frequently moves right before the snap, trying to induce false starts in their raucous home atmosphere and create confusion in opponent’s blocking assignments.
“I have full faith and trust in the guys here with how smart our O-line is and the rest of the guys on the offense, I have no worries we’re going to go in there and we’re going to do our thing,” Thompson-Robinson said.
That confidence comes from the continuity of an offensive line that has started every game together. Mafi, center Duke Clemens, right guard Jon Gaines II and left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal have combined for 83 career starts, counting O’Neal’s four seasons at Rutgers before transferring.
Mafi has another 14 career starts from his time as a defensive lineman to draw from.
The least experienced player on the line is right tackle Garrett DiGiorgio, who already has seven career starts under his belt as a redshirt freshman.
“And so those guys can go back to situations that they’ve been in before when a situation goes up and goes, ‘Oh, we’ve been in this before. You know, here’s the adjustment that we have to make,’ and you know, there’s no substitute for experience,” coach Chip Kelly said.
It is a major reason for the belief Mafi and his teammates share going into what might be the toughest test of their resurgent season.
“I mean, for us on the offense, we understand that nobody’s gonna stop us unless we stop ourselves,” Mafi said. “So we have full faith in our defense to go out there and make the stops we need, but we’re definitely focused on us, on scoring every drive.”
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