SYRACUSE — Despite the critical role they play in any football team's success, they're generally the most overlooked guys on the entire roster.
And they're the ones who get stuck with that unflattering nickname — "The Big Uglies” — no matter how nice-looking these guys might actually be.
Yes, they're the offensive linemen — those five unsung heroes who do the dirty work in the trenches from tackle to tackle, trying to protect their quarterback in the passing attack and open up holes for their running backs in the ground game.
While Syracuse High's dominating defense has hogged many of the headlines this season, the Titans' O-linemen could play a very vital role in their quest to secure the school's first state championship in football Friday when they face Jordan in the 5A title game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Sure, the Syracuse defense no doubt has a huge challenge ahead trying to contain the Beetdiggers' high-powered offense.
But that's where the Titans' offense comes in: If the Titans can stay on the field, sustain some long scoring drives and chew up big chunks off the clock, they'll keep Jordan's offense off the field.
Indeed, the explosive 'Diggers can't do any damage if they're standing on the Rice-Eccles sideline.
"I think the key is to treat it as any other game," said senior offensive guard Hayden Barney, who at 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds doesn't live up to that "Big Ugly" nickname in the slightest. "I don't think you can get too nervous. ... You just try to take it as another game and just see these guys as another opponent.
"We have confidence that there's two teams left in 5A football and we're one of them. They're a good team and so are we, so we just need to keep our heads in the game and play as hard as we can.
"You always hear that Jordan's always picked to win and we're always picked to lose," Barney said. "Jordan has a high-powered offense and they've got a good quarterback (Austin Kafentzis) and they've got good skill kids. We've got a good defense as well; we're one of the best defensive teams in the state. ... So I think our defense is the best opponent for them and I think they're going to do a good job, and as a team we're going to do a good job.
"Jordan's scoring at least 35 points a game, but I don't know if that's gonna happen on Friday.”
Syracuse hadn't allowed more than 14 points to an opponent all season long and was giving up an average of just 7 points a game until two weeks ago, when Alta scored 24 points against the Titans in Syracuse's hard-earned 31-24 quarterfinal victory.
The Titans gave up 16 points in last week's semifinal win over Bingham, but now comes their biggest challenge of the year — trying to stop a Jordan team that's capable of piling plenty of points on the scoreboard.
But the Syracuse offense has shown that same capability at times. And after tragically losing star senior quarterback Brock Anderson to a torn Achilles in the victory over Alta, sophomore QB Kole Tracy stepped into the void and did a mighty admirable job against the Miners.
"When we lost Brock, we got a little down, but we hurried and got over that and I think Kole will step up this week and do good," said senior center Noah Sorenson. "We started off shaky last game, but we got it together and we came out with a win, but it was close.
"The O-line, we have to get more of a push and run the ball more than we did last week (against Bingham), because we didn't really get the run game going. If we do that, then we'lll be able to do more play-action and be able to pass the ball and beat 'em passing and running.
"Their D-line seems like they're pretty big and pretty strong; their 'backers, from what it looks like, they look pretty good," Sorenson said. "I think where the key to beating them is their secondary, because we have really good receivers and I think they can get past those guys."
Cardon Malan, a 6-2, 240-pound offensive tackle and defensive end, said the key to Friday's title matchup is for the Titans to just play the way they always do.
"We all just need to play our game, do our assignments, make no mistakes, no turnovers," he said. "And I think, if we do all that, we'll be good.
"That (Bingham win) gave us a ton of confidence. For a sophomore (Tracy) to step it up like that, and to get a 'W' like that in his first game playing against Bingham in the semifinals, that just makes us all feel secure with him.
"Basically, if we stop No. 2 and No. 5 (running back Clay Moss), we'll do good,” Malan said. "No. 2 is Kafentzis, the quarterback — he can run; he can throw; he can do it all. He's quite the athlete. If we stop him, we'll be in good hands. He's an athlete; he can run. We've got to put pressure on him, put a spy on him, just try to contain him."
Malan's running mate at offensive tackle, 6-2, 245-pound junior Braiden Tovey, admitted that he's "never experienced a championship game before, not even in little league or anything, so it's just an unreal feeling. I'm very excited about it.
"You always expect you have a good enough team. You always hope you have a good enough team. I think at the beginning of the year, we really came together and felt like we were gonna get here. (We've been) playing together, playing hard, doing all of our assignments, doing what we've got to do and getting it done.
"Now we've just got to keep your head in the game, don't get sidetracked, just know what you've got to do on every play," Tovey said. "Play together, play hard, run to the ball — I think we can do it. We need to play how we normally do. Everybody's got to get their assignment down, and I think we'll do good. If everybody does their assignment, we'll stop 'em. They're a pretty strong team all around as far as I can tell, but we're a strong team, too, so it's gonna be a good game."
The final member of the Titans' front five on the interior of the offensive line, 6-foot, 240-pound junior offensive guard Kaden Craig, attributed the team's success to a "combination of hard work, talent and coaching, and I think we have a very good combination of those three."
He said the Syracuse squad is not only confident but, perhaps more importantly, just hates the thoughts of losing after they've come this far.
"I think we have an attitude that we can't lose — we can't stand losing," Craig said. "For me, it's not that I want to win so bad, it's just that I can't look at the guy across from me and say he beat me. It's one of those attitudes that this team has — everybody, from the seniors on down to the freshmen.
"We've got to hold their offense down. We've got to put up points — it's very simple. That's the game plan for every game. They've got a lot of good skill kids, and we've got to make sure that we account for everybody that's there."5 comments on this story
He said Region 1 often gets overlooked when it comes time to rank the state's top 5A teams, and he thinks that's a mistake.
"We have just as good a teams that come out of there," Craig said, "and we can play with the best of 'em."
On Friday, the 2012 Titans will get their opportunity to prove that's true one last time.