?The worst days are behind this defense. Pinkard, a hard-hitting ball hawk, has stabilized the secondary, and the 32 days between the UCLA game and the Rose Bowl give the linebackers time to heal. In the meantime Cushing and Maualuga are battle-tested for the Rose Bowl--and beyond.
"It's hard to throw freshmen out there in a defense as sophisticated as Pete's," says Monte Kiffin, Carroll's onetime mentor who is now defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "This might be the best coaching job he's ever done."
Kiffin often mentions the "football awareness" he discerned in Carroll, who was a graduate assistant at Arkansas when Kiffin was the defensive coordinator there in 1977. Kiffin saw the same quality in Gene Chizik, an intense young assistant at Central Florida who used to drive from Orlando to Bucs headquarters daily in the late 1990s to watch video, eavesdrop at meetings and pick the brains of Tony Dungy, then the Tampa Bay coach, and a staff that included Kiffin, Herm Edwards and Lovie Smith. Seven years later Chizik is co-defensive coordinator at Texas; at the Rose Bowl he will match wits with Kiffin's son Lane, the first-year offensive coordinator at USC who proved that maybe his heralded predecessor, Norm Chow, wasn't so indispensable after all.
Chizik, who had spent the previous three seasons as the coordinator at Auburn, inherited a very good defense and improved it. The man he succeeded, Greg Robinson, who left to become the Syracuse coach, had imposed a kind of no-dessert-until-you've-finished-your-broccoli rule on his linemen, forbidding them to rush the passer until they made sure the play was not a run. Chizik emancipated the linemen, telling them to play the run on their way to the passer. If a back gets by them, well, that's what linebackers are for. Given their druthers, the guys up front have always preferred to "penetrate and bore holes" in the line, says defensive tackle Rodrique Wright.
"They're both effective [schemes]," says fellow tackle Frank Okam, referring to the two approaches, "but as a defensive lineman it's easier to rush the passer when you're already attacking." It's not like they need to pace themselves. Okam and Wright are but two players on a superb front that goes nine deep. Also, Chizik doesn't get hung up on nomenclature; he'll put an end at tackle and vice versa.
There is similar depth--and disregard for job titles--in the Texas secondary. To get as much speed on the field as possible, for a better chance to contain Bush, Chizik is expected to often play five or six defensive backs at a time. The most talented of those is Michael Huff, who is known as much for his brain as for his big hits. Against Texas A&M, for instance, Chizik called for a blitz by his Sam linebacker, "but our Sam wasn't on the field," says Huff, who moved into that spot, blitzed and forced a fumble. It's nice, says Chizik, to have a guy who can cover for coaches when they screw up.
Huff, who last Thursday won the Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, is listed in the Texas media guide as safety/corner. It is a peculiarity of the Longhorns that virtually all members of the secondary play both positions, sometimes in the same series. What's up with that? "When I got here [in 2001]," explains secondary coach and co--defensive coordinator Duane Akina, "our four best athletes were our four cornerbacks. I didn't want them all sitting on the bench."
Huff expects his biggest challenge in the Rose Bowl will be tackling Bush in the open field. Jackson, conversely, knows his toughest test will be limiting the damage done by Young's broken-field runs, a subject that reminds him of another TV show he watched recently. "A unique species of bird--I think it was some kind of hawk--actually hunts in teams," he says. In the show, the birds worked together to tire out a doomed rabbit. "I thought, This is how you play defense."
The Rose Bowl will turn on which unit hunts best together: The statistically superior Longhorns or the much-improved Trojans. "It's not about stats," says Rucker, with a flash of irritation. "It's how you finish."
Easy, Frostee. No need to get defensive about it.