The left analog stick moves quickly as Josh Allen slides to right, avoiding the pressure from TJ Watt. The ball is launched deep and on the receiving end of the pass is Stefon Diggs. Another touchdown for Nick Stazer. He does play madden all the time, so he expects to win every time.
What matters more is that he’s playing against people who are just as competitive as him. His fellow lineman, Colton Rossi, Jeff Burkhart, Sawyer Morgan, Anthony Rebar, and Yuriy Hryckowian. The six of them have become very well acquainted in the past eight months.
“I think everyone of us can agree, we’re always hanging out, because if we’re not in practice or meetings, we’re at someone’s house hanging out and eating,” Rossi said. “We eat, it’s just what we do.”
He means that last part both literally and metaphorically. With a grin on his face, he looks around as the rest of the group laughs and agrees.
Eating is defined as two things for this group. The first is what it means to everyone, when they’re hungry they’re going to grab a bite. The second is what Rossi meant when he said it, and that’s dominating on the field. They’re hungry still, just for a different type of pancake.
While each took a different path to get to where they are now, they’re sitting in the middle of Stazer’s living room eating pasta. Eating dinner together has become a tradition. Hanging out has become the norm. Dominating their opponents on the gridiron has become the expectation.
“The culture is cool here, because we have swag. Because when we get off the bus, half the time we’ve already won the game. Because teams are scared of the confidence that we have,” Stazer said.
In football, it’s quite obvious that an offense is only as good as it’s offensive line. You can have the best playmakers in the country, but if you have no time to get them the ball, it doesn’t matter. Lucky for The Rock, they just so happen to have one of the best defensive lines in the country to sharpen their offensive line every day.
“I think every day we come out here iron sharpens iron. And we don’t get along on the field, but when we’re off it, it’s all love,” Rossi said. “There’s always brawls and fights, but we both know that’s the only way we’re going to get better.”
It would be hard not to get better every time you step on the field for practice. Especially when you’ve had to matchup with the likes of Jeff Marx for multiple years. Rossi, now a captain of the football team, had to earn his stripes against guys like that.
“Going up against Jeff Marx since freshman year, when I first came in, he would whoop my ass every day,” Morgan said. “Now the playing field is more even.”
But the job is a lot easier when you have a guy who has been to the highest-level coaching you. They benefit from having coach Chris Conrad, who played his college football at Fresno State before getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 1998 draft. He was drafted in the same class as Peyton Manning and played under coach Bill Cowher for two years.
There isn’t a player on the team that takes his presence for granted, and the offensive lineman thank their lucky stars that they have him as a mentor every day.
“He’s done it at the highest level, so when he tells you something, you’re like ‘well that shit probably works,”’ Stazer said. “He’s just such a relatable guy, so it’s easy to like him, but he’s also truthful and he tells you how it is.”
Conrad and Lutz have developed a special relationship, but they’ve also created an environment where players feel free to express themselves. That couldn’t be more important for a group like this one.
“The coaches let you be yourself here, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Rossi said. “It trickles down all the way, everyone accepts everyone and how they express themselves.”
Conrad has been in charge of a group that may be the tightest knit group of offensive lineman that The Rock has seen in a while. They may benefit from him, but in a way, he benefits from these guys just as much.
Of the six lineman that are on the field for The Rock every Saturday, three transferred in. With them came a multitude of different perspectives and experiences. Burkhart came from Lock Haven, where winning was hard to come by. Rossi from Robert Morris, where he was originally a defensive lineman and Stazer from the University of Pittsburgh, where the game is more of a business than it is anything else.
“For me I played center at Lock Haven, and I play center here too, but the difference is the culture,” Burkhart said. “There you’d be lucky to win a game a year, here you’re expected to win every game and losing just isn’t an option.”
Stazer’s viewpoint coming in was totally different.
“I came from a business, where you were lucky if you had a conversation with your coach,” Stazer said. “Coming here, it’s totally different, I have a relationship with every coach and they all can say the same, it’s definitely a special place here.”
In his year at Pitt, Stazer was able to play with the likes of Kenny Pickett, who is now the starting quarterback for the Steelers. While that was cool and all, he notes that he had maybe two conversations with head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Here, it’s the complete opposite. Expectations here are somewhat similar, but Lutz is around talking with every player. That closeness is what draws all six of them in further and further each week.
Family has always been the word used by those around the program. They spend so much time together, that it literally begins to feel that way. However, chemistry can’t be forced. You either have it or you don’t.
They have it. More than anyone would’ve ever expected, and it translates to the field.
“For me as a first-year starter, it means a lot to have guys next to you like Stazer or Rossi that you can trust,” Morgan said. “You can play your game and not have to worry what the guys next to you are doing.”
As Morgan talked, once again everyone’s heads nod in unison. The trust they have for the guy next to them is what has helped them to become such a coherent unit.
“I think for us as a group collectively, we just want to impose our will every game. So we can’t miss a rep, have a misstep or wrong hand placement, because we just want to kill all game,” Rossi said. “We move completely as a unit, and if one of us isn’t there, then we’re not all there, so we always stay on each other and push each other.”
What stands out about the group is that they all in one way or another have taken on a leadership role. They all acknowledge it and want to set the best example they can.
“I think the o-line sets an example for all the other position groups, I think the last time we had someone miss a meeting, it was probably three or four weeks ago,” Hryckowian said.
As Stazer mentioned, all that chemistry leads to their style on the field. They play with flair that sometimes their opponent doesn’t like. If you play close attention, you may see multiple defensive players down on the turf on the same play. The aftermath is almost always the same. As the group is walking away, they let them know that they put them down and every once in a while, they take exception to it.
“I think all five of us, but especially Colton and I, we like to go out there and embarrass people,” Stazer said. “We want to throw them down every single play.”
Stazer and Rossi seem to be the two that the other teams come after the most. Sometimes this even draws a flag, but either way it won’t stop them from telling you that they’re just better than you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Usually, the things we say to people are pretty exclusive, but it’s a lot of not nice words and pretty much telling them they shouldn’t be on the field with us, that’s just as disrespectful as it can get,” Rossi said. “That’s how we have our fun, we’re going to block you and tell you that you aren’t good.”
But as soon as the whistle blows to end the game, they’re six of the nicest guys you can come across on campus. Each will crack a joke, but the competitive spirit in them has been reaffirmed repeatedly. With the same goal, win the game and win it convincingly.
This season has stood out from other years, because of the offensive lines ability to take over a game. That has helped spark the offense to do whatever they want against their opponents. If you ask the line what they want to do though, they’re going to say run the ball.
“Personally, we want the pressure on us and if you put it on us we’ll go out there and get the job done every week,” Rossi said. “We’ll keep everyone safe and push the line of scrimmage all game.”
For as long as anyone can remember, The Rock has been a pass first team. With this group, they’ve wanted to make sure people know that they can beat you by running the ball too. Matter of fact, they wanted to prove this point as they began the year.
“The big thing this year is the running game, and we wanted to make that an expressive point from last year,” Rossi said. “We’re doing a good job of that, and we have some really good backs to help contribute.”
When it comes to it, their job is to protect quarterback, Noah Grover. They’ve excelled at that task this year thus far. Grover knows it and can’t thank them enough.
“It’s been easy playing behind this line, I could eat a sandwich back there,” Grover said.
Once again, they all agreed, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Keeping Grover off the ground gives them the best shot to win a game.
“He’s a pretty good guy, I guess. But seriously, we all love him, and we don’t want to see him get hurt or be on the ground,” Morgan said. “So, we take care of him.”
They’ve done more than take care of him. They haven’t allowed a sack through nine games this year. Most quarterbacks can only dream of that.
It wasn’t until they faced Indiana (Pa.) that they realized how much potential they had, however. Since then, they’ve continued to build off of it.
“We went into that game being told that was one of the best of the best d-lines that we were going to play this year, and we absolutely bullied them, and they should feel bad about it,” Morgan said. “Coming off of that we knew we were those guys and we have just built off of that.”
Obviously, the result of that game didn’t go the way they planned, but that has just thrown more fuel on the fire for every single one of them. Since that point, they’ve contributed to an offense that has put up 144 points over their past four games.
“I think sometimes you have to lose a game to realize that you don’t want to do that again,” Stazer said. “We don’t want to do that again.”
Perhaps the best part is that all of them will return for another year of action. But the focus still remains on what they can do with this one.
Now with just two games left in the regular season, the goal remains the same. Win at all costs. At the end of the day they all want to be part of the reason they are holding a national championship trophy when the season concludes. They also want to wave hello to each of their opponents while they stand over them after leading The Rock offense to yet another big play.
“I think all of us want to win that national championship, but more importantly we want to take it week by week,” Hryckowian said. “We want to have dreams, but we want to focus on each week leading up to it and not be too focused on it.”