'Desert Swarm' back at top of conference

By Arlie Rahn

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Before the season started, the big question was whether Arizona's Desert Swarm defense was dead. After eight games, this unit has quietly become the best in the Pacific 10 Conference, allowing only 267.8 yards per game. But does this defense still have the intimidating image it was famous for in the last three years?

"Arizona is still the best defensive team in the Pac-10 conference, hands down," said Oregon State coach Jerry Pettibone, whose team plays Arizona (4-4 overall, 2-3 in the Pac-10) on Saturday in Corvallis, Ore.

In fact, the Wildcats have actually improved in one area of their defense this season. In years past, Arizona has been notorious for allowing the big passing play because it concentrated on stopping the run. Yet this season Arizona is holding opponents to a 103.8 passing rating, the lowest in the conference, and has allowed only 1,224 yards through the air.

The only thing lacking from this year's squad has been its inability to cause turnovers, something it rectified last week against Washington State. The Wildcats forced five turnovers en route to their 24-14 win. But Arizona didn't do anything defensively it hadn't already done this season.

"The only difference in this week from previous weeks was that we were plus-four in the turnover margin," UA coach Dick Tomey said. "It's not like we gave a better effort or had any magic, we just made the plays."

When Arizona faces Oregon State's wishbone attack this weekend, it won't be a style unfamiliar to Tomey. Four years ago the offense of choice for Tomey was the option.

"A couple of years ago we were planning on running an option-style offense with Chuck Levy as quarterback. But he decided not to play quarterback and wanted to be a wide receiver," Tomey said. "And since we didn't have anyone that could run the option, we decided to change our style a bit and go out and get Dan (White) from Penn State."

Even though his team isn't running the option doesn't mean Tomey isn't fond of it.

"Option football is great football," Tomey said. "It's a tough offense to prepare for because blitzing and other defensive shifts don't really stop it."

So the question is, if it has so many positives, why don't more teams use it?

"I think it is a little unpopular with the fans and the media," Tomey said. "When I was at UCLA, we tried to put it in. But the problem was every time we would lose, the press would blame the loss on the fact that we ran the option. I think that people turn on the TV on Sunday and see different offenses than the option so they feel it doesn't work. It's a shame because a well-run option attack is very tough to defend."

Arizona has traces of the option in some of its plays.

"The fake field goal play we ran in Pullman (Wash.) was just an upside-down option," Tomey said. "We had planned for (Ryan) Hesson to run the ball, but when the guy picked him up he pitched it to (Charles) Myles."

UA strong safety Brandon Sanders was named the Pac-10 defensive player of the week. Sanders, the third Wildcat this season to be named player of the week, had two key fourth-quarter interceptions to help preserve Arizona's victory against Washington State. He also added four unassisted tackles and knocked down two passes.

The Washington State game last Saturday marked the first time since Sept. 30 that Sanders, who suffered a shoulder injury earlier in the season, started a game healthy.

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