Advertisement

COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’94 / Season Previews : Swarming to Its Task : Arizona’s Defense Against the Run Makes the Wildcats Favorites to Win Pac-10 Conference Championship

Share via
TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a hot night in Tucson in September of 1992, Phil Stone indulged in a bit of electronic hyperbole, telling Prime Ticket viewers that Arizona was using a swarm of running backs against Washington State.

A little later, Stone’s sidekick, Russ Francis, was watching eight Arizona defenders get up off a Cougar running back. Francis remembered he had seen a cactus or two around Tucson, and hadn’t there been something in the paper about a skirmish in the desert? Desert Storm, wasn’t it?

“That’s a real, uh, Desert Swarm, “ Francis said--and a star--the defense, not the announcer--was born.

It’s a unique lineup of athletes that works, not because of where they play, but because of how they play.

“The players make it special,” defensive end Tedy Bruschi said. “It’s not a difficult scheme. We don’t blitz a lot. There’s no complex system to our defense. It’s just the players. I look at (defensive back) Brandon Sanders and see that he’s giving it all he’s got on every single play, and it makes me want to. It’s sort of a ripple effect.”

Advertisement

Call it the double-eagle flex defense. Coaches do, in part because there are elements of the old Dallas Cowboys’ flex. Technically, it uses a five-man line with one of the linemen set back off the line of scrimmage, almost like a linebacker, the better to read the flow of the play.

“I don’t see anybody here who could understand it,” former Cowboy coach Tom Landry once told a Super Bowl gathering of more than 1,000 sportswriters, one of whom had asked about the flex. Many then went to Jethro Pugh and got an explanation: “Playing a zone up front, with everybody taking care of his own business.”

Actually, the five-man line is more like eight, everybody forward. The defensive backs play a lot of man-to-man, hoping the pass rush gets to the quarterback in time.

It frequently does.

Arizona had 59 sacks in 11 games last season, 16 more than any other team in the Pacific 10 Conference, then had four in the Fiesta Bowl, a 29-0 victory over Miami.

“I think there are a lot of different ways you can line up, but I don’t think that’s the secret to why they are so good,” said Norm Anderson, who this year coaches UCLA’s receivers but who last year was an assistant at Arizona. “They play hard, and the amazing thing to me when I was over there was the way they practiced. Those kids practice the way they play--hard.”

Start with the coaching. Defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff grew up in Fullerton, met Coach Dick Tomey at Hawaii and went with him to Arizona. Both demand defensive, mistake-free football.

Advertisement

“Every Monday, we have a defensive-unit meeting and look at what each player does on film,” said Tony Bouie, an all-conference safety. “It gives you an appreciation of what other people on your defense do. Coach Mac Duff will point out players. If they’re not hustling to the ball, it sticks out like a sore thumb.”

If the ball hasn’t attracted 11 Wildcats, the goal hasn’t been reached.

There are no awards given, no Buckeyes or roses or stars for helmets for big plays.

“We never tell them things like, ‘Our goal this week is to hold the other team under 50 yards rushing,’ ” Mac Duff said. “We just tell them to play hard.”

But the Wildcats frequently do hold teams under 50 yards rushing. Last season, only one

team rushed for more than 100 yards against the Desert Swarm. Rival Arizona State hit exactly 100, taking 44 carries to do it.

Three teams--Texas El Paso, Pacific and Illinois--finished with minus yardage.

Teams ran for 331 yards all season on Arizona--an average of 30.1. The old Pac-10 records were 655 yards by Washington in 1964 and 61.5 a game by USC in 1989.

Even the much-maligned Arizona offense gets into the act.

The Wildcats were ninth in the Pac-10 in passing and total offense last season, but second in rushing and first in time of possession. On hot nights in Tucson, keeping your defense off the field helps it play better when it gets on the field.

“Their philosophy is a defensive-minded philosophy: Hold onto the ball, make the game a little shorter, don’t let bad plays happen on offense,” Anderson said.

Advertisement

The bad plays didn’t happen often last season, when Arizona had its first 10-victory season.

At least one publication has picked the Wildcats No. 1 in the country, and the Pac-10 coaches and media had no trouble making them the Rose Bowl favorite.

“It’s ironic, but from a national respect standpoint, I think it’s true” that the Wildcats got more out of beating Miami than Florida State got out of beating Nebraska for the national title in the Orange Bowl, Tomey said.

“They just kicked the living tar out of us,” Miami Coach Dennis Erickson said. “They dominated the line of scrimmage, and their defense proved that it was everything they said.”

It was the first time Miami had been shut out in 15 years, three national championships and a Jimmy Johnson or two ago. The pace was set early, when Bruschi, the game’s defensive most valuable player, sacked Ryan Collins for a 16-yard loss. Miami started the series at its 37 and punted on fourth and 41 from its six.

As far as the Wildcats were concerned, it should have been the second victory over Miami in three seasons. Arizona lost, 8-7, in 1992 at Miami when Steve McLaughlin’s 51-yard field goal try in the last second sailed a few feet wide.

Advertisement

“I feel we should have beaten them down there, and they knew it,” Bouie said. “You should have seen their faces. They were so relieved. . . .

“When they got to the Fiesta Bowl, we came out and they were rah-rah, just like they usually are. Typical Miami. But after the first series they never said a word. They never said a word.

“I think they gave up after the second quarter. . . . It was something to see, to have the Miami Hurricanes humbled.”

There was no magic to it, Bruschi said.

“We just played our butts off,” he said. “We played hard, the way we wanted to play, and everything was working.”

Everything usually does with the Desert Swarm.

“We take it seriously,” Bouie said. “It’s become kind of a standard at the University of Arizona as to how to play defense. When we first started being called the Desert Swarm, it was just a topic. It was just there. But it grew into an identity, and we accept it. It’s easier to play for an identity.”

It has become a legacy of sorts for those who replace Rob Waldrop and others who established the image.

Advertisement

“Each year, new players have to come in and establish their own identity,” Mac Duff said.

Maybe it’s easier if the reputation is already there. The challenge is to measure up

“Each year, it’s new and we have to prove that we deserve the identity as a team,” Bouie said.

This year, it’s a little different. There are five new starters on defense.

There are eight returning starters among Pac-10 quarterbacks.

“A couple of the quarterbacks in the Pac-10 are Heisman Trophy candidates, and you look forward to that,” Bouie said. “It’s something that doesn’t happen often, so you relish it. It’s a challenge, and a good athlete accepts a challenge.”

Familiarity helps.

“You can see a few heads go up and down when they look at film of a quarterback they know,” Mac Duff said. “It can help in preparation.”

Bruschi, who had at least one sack in every game last season, a Pac-10-leading 19 1/2 in all, doesn’t care about quarterbacks.

“I worry more about the offensive line,” he said. “I don’t care what quarterback is back there. All I want to know about the quarterback is if he is mobile or not. If he’s mobile, it will affect our pass rush. If he’s a pocket passer, we’ll be a little more reckless.”

And Bruschi likes to be reckless.

“Look, it’s really simple,” he said. “Each of us has a technique to perform, a key to read, and if you can’t do that, you can’t play in our defense. You take care of your job and 10 others take care of their jobs, and you have a good defense.”

Advertisement

A Desert Swarm.

Advertisement