June 21, 2023

The "Desert Swarm" Defense - Arizona Wildcats

It was hard to believe. The faithful Miami Hurricane fans booing their defending national champions at halftime. The game was supposed to be a cakewalk. The Canes were 27.5-point favorites. They even paid $250,000 to their opponents. For this? Down 7-2 to the University of Arizona.

Coming into the 1992 season, expectations for the Wildcats were not high coming off a 4-7 record, in which they were outscored by their opponents 361-248. The Wildcats start of the season was a rollercoaster, with a record of 1-1-1. The Arizona Daily Star reported that Head Coach Dick Tomey told his team, “None of us like the situation we’re in, but it’s up to us to do something about it.” – The Wildcats did just that.

Arizona took the defending champs to the absolute limit, but it wasn’t enough. Miami won 8-7 as Wildcats kicker Steve McLaughlin’s field goal attempt skewed four inches right of the goalpost as time expired. The loss though was not in vain, as the talk of the town was the Arizona defense. The unit held Miami to 2 yards rushing the entire game and pressured Miami QB Gino Torretta into dink-and-dunk passes the entire game. The loss was just what this team needed, a boost. A boost that began a legend that has lived on in College Football lore: The Desert Swarm.

The profiles of the Desert Swarm players, read like an introduction of a posse from an old western. One of the veterans of the Swarm was Rob Waldrop, the two-time First-team All-American. Tedy Bruschi, the mullet sporting sack master leader of the Swarm, finished with 52 career sacks. Tony Bouie, the Wildcat’s All-Conference Safety, who also played baseball for the school. Cornerback Brandon Sanders, who patrolled the secondary, had 199 tackles and nine interceptions in his college career. Finally, Linebacker Sean Harris, who led the team in tackles in 1992 and 1994.

Wildcats Defensive Coordinator Larry Mac Duff had the players, but how would he utilize them to their full potential? He wanted to simplify the scheme for his players but at the same time cause confusion in the opposition. His solution was the Double Eagle Flex.

Arizona opponents in the early 90s expected to see a modified 4-3 formation with four down lineman and three linebackers, but the crux was a “flex” player. The primary function of the swarm was to stop the run and force the offense to pass. This is where the flex player was key. The flex player was an interior lineman who rushed the passer and on occasion dropped into coverage. With the players set and formation implemented, the defense had two objectives:

  1. Swarm to the ball carrier.
  2. Cause turnovers.

Both objectives were clearly met when Arizona faced off against top-ranked Washington later in the 1992 season. The Desert Swarm took down the Huskies 16-3 with a fantastic performance. The Washington run game had nowhere to go as they only gained 90 yards on the day. Rob Waldrop saw the frustration in the eyes of the Huskies. “They would run a play, and they’d get dropped for no gain and they would be cussing at each other,” he said in a post-game interview. First objective complete. The Desert Swarm completed their second objective causing four turnovers, three fumbles and one interception. The lone interception was the game sealer late in the fourth quarter, as Tony Bouie created a tip drill with a hard hit, which fellow Wildcat DB Keshon Johnson snagged the ball to secure the pick. When asked about how he addressed his team about the upset at his press conference, Coach Tomey said, “I told the guys this was not an upset. People have to start believing in us.”

The speech could only do so much as Arizona’s offense never found its rhythm. The team lost its final two regular season games and bowl, finishing the season 6-5-1. All three losses were by seven points or less. The Desert Swarm was a legitimate defense, holding opponents to 8.9 points per game and 65.1 rushing yards per game.

The 1993 version of the Desert Swarm was bigger, better, and more tenacious. The ’93 Swarm allowed their opponents 13.4 points per game and only gave up 331 rushing yards in the entirety of the regular season. That’s 30.1 yards rushing per game! In addition, the offense improved helping the Wildcats finish the regular season with a 9-2 record. Arizona was PAC-10 Co-Conference Champions and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl against a familiar opponent. Miami (FL).

The Hurricanes were 5.5-point favorites, but the Wildcats did not flinch at being the underdogs again, fully embracing it. In front of 72,260 fans in Tempe, AZ the Desert Swarm were in their element. Four QB sacks, four interceptions, one fumble recovery, 35 rushing yards allowed, and zero (0) points allowed, in an emphatic 29-0 victory. The Wildcats’ first defensive series set the tone, as the unit sacked Miami QB Ryan Collins twice for a loss of 31 yards. Miami never found its footing the entire game. Tedy Bruschi expressed his surprise in the post-game interview, “I expected to win, but a shutout? No, I didn’t expect a shutout.” Robert Waldrop, who returned for his senior season, was questionable for the Fiesta Bowl, due to a knee injury that required surgery but was determined to finish his career with his teammates. “I feel gratified… Although I wasn’t 100 percent for this game, I can walk away from this and feel satisfied that I made a contribution.”

Robert Waldrop was named a Unanimous All-American and won the Outland and Nagurski award in 1993. Waldrop was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011. Tedy Bruschi was two-time Consensus All-American and three-time First-Team All-PAC-10. Bruschi had an illustrious professional career, winning three Super Bowls and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013.

Both players were impact players as the Desert Swarm cemented their place in history together as a whole.

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