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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

August 28, 1994|JIM HODGES | 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."

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.

"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.

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."

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