For his part, El-Mashtoub says, "My goal this year is no personal fouls."
It is a team composed of players who were tested much too early, when injuries in the fall of '91 forced freshmen onto the field to be drummed by eventual national champion Washington and by UCLA by a combined score of 108-14. That 1-1-1 start to the '92 season brought distant rumbles calling for Tomey's head, which Dempsey ignored. And on the Saturday night following Tomey's daylong individual meetings, Arizona fell just one point short of upsetting the Hurricanes when Steve McLaughlin's 51-yard field goal attempt was wide right on the last play of the game, and Miami held on 8-7. "But that game was when we started going upward instead of downward." says Harris.
Ascension has been achieved in large part with that remarkable Desert Swarm defense, home to many of the undecorated recruits. And don't take the nickname lightly: "When you have an identity, you play differently," says Bouie. Desert Swarm is a goulash of concepts hatched by Tomey and Mac Duff in the mid-'80s at Hawaii and refined by Ellerson. It's an aggressive five-man front with one of the five functioning essentially as an outside linebacker, flexed off the line of scrimmage. The basic set seldom changes, but it's odd enough to bewilder offenses accustomed to more conventional approaches. "You hear the offense coming up and saying, 'What's that?' " says Hoffman. "We can screw up and still make a negative play."
The philosophy is simple: Stop the run. "Take the ball away, and stop the run," says Mac Duff. "That's it. Even if you play an offense that's two-dimensional, if you do a good job against the run, put 'em in third-and-five, where they've got to pass, you can do some things."
In 14 of Arizona's last 21 games, opponents have rushed for less than 50 yards, which means lots of third-and-fives (and third-and-12's too) plus lots of sacks for Bruschi & Co. There's a premium on playing with madness. After Sanders was flagged for unnecessary roughness on one of those big hits against Illinois, Mac Duff called his defense to the sideline and said, "Fellas, keep playing that same way."
There is, however, a plan for more offense. White, the transfer quarterback from Penn State, struggled early last year after not taking a hit for three full seasons. "He had these big ol' eyes at the beginning of the year," says Smigiel. "Most of the guys on the O-line were thinking, 'Just run the ball.' " But White steadied himself; after five interceptions in the first six games, he had just two the rest of the season. His 40 time has improved from a glacial 5.2 to 4.97. Senior Ontiwaun Carter needs only 1,100 yards to become Arizona's leading career rusher. The offensive line has five veterans returning, including Pulu Poumele, a Samoan from Oceanside, Calif., who is a cousin to Junior Seau, and Mu Tagoai, a Samoan from...Samoa.
Simply put, the Wildcats shouldn't need to shut everybody out. "But we still want to," says Tomey.
This brings a deep laugh, a sort of joy that is part of the Tucson landscape these days. Championship opportunity is nothing more than Same Time Next Year in Ann Arbor and Coral Gables. This is the first time for Arizona, a short step over the line that separates underdog from chalk. Innocence soon will be lost, best signaled by Arizona's hiring of 28-year-old Rob Ianello as full-time recruiting coordinator. Ianello comes to Arizona from Wisconsin, where he helped round up the athletes who took the Badgers from running joke to the Rose Bowl in four quick years. Of Arizona, Ianello promises, "We want to become a national recruiting school."
Says Tomey, "It's scary because sometimes high-class recruits can't play, and we don't want to quit recruiting the kind of guys that have made us successful."
Nevertheless, Ianello folds back a recruiting magazine listing its Top 100 players and says Arizona will be in the mix with more than 60 of them. There's a certain inevitability to this process, that the type of player on whom a climbing program built its foundation eventually becomes expendable, replaced by the ones who all make five visits. But that's an issue for the future.