Last year's lightning quick and overpowering Wild Bunch 2 has given way to the Wild Bunch 2 1/2; a larger and more versatile group of defensive lineman, with a host of traits and abilities. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron has employed a seven-man rotation that tantalizes opposing O-Lines. This year, the Wild Bunch has become more of a Wild "Crowd."
And thus far, it has worked. By the final series of the Trojans 23-17 triumph over the Bears, Rodgers had been beaten, bruised, thrown, twisted, smacked, pounded – he essentially had his clock cleaned for an entire 58 minutes. Sure, completing the first 23 passes is easy when the pressure is still building. But then, it hits. Like a ton of bricks. And that's exactly how Coach O and defensive coordinator Pete Carroll like it. The cool, confident and always, "complete" Aaron Rodgers was suddenly a deer in the headlights staring at the Orgeron-administered pass rush. Rodgers completed only 6 of his final 11 passes, zero of his final three, and was under constant duress during the final period.
Fast forward to this past Saturday, when USC stomped on Arizona St. and Sun Devil quarterback Andrew Walter was reunited with an old friend, the Coliseum floor. Walter came into Saturday's showdown averaging more than 250 yards through the air, and was hoping to put on an aerial show against USC's suspect secondary. Instead, Walter was constantly on the move, facing a "wild" pass rush on nearly every down. Walter had little time to set his feet, and when he did, he realized that Carroll still dropped seven defenders into coverage.
The pressure grew on Rodgers and Walter not only because of the numerous talented and skilled defensive linemen, but because they are numerous. The members of the new Wild Bunch present diverse match-up issues for opposing lineman.
Every drive that Garrett Cross, who gained 53 yards on four catches against UCLA Saturday, lined up at tight end against USC, he'd see a different cardinal and gold jersey with a different number and an entirely different type of pass rush.
Early on, Cross was heads up with Shaun Cody, who brings sensational versatility to this group. On one play, he'll dominate a lineman inside, and suddenly on the next play, he'll blow by a tight end outside. Shaun can line up on a guard or a tackle, a tailback or a tight end, and still control that part of the offensive front. Shaun's versatility really is a key for this Wild Bunch. If not for Cody's ability to flex between the tackle and end positions, Trojan fans might not see college football's next big thing defensively -- Manuel Wright.
The near-300 pound tackle from Long Beach Poly, affectionately known to Trojan faithful as, "Manny," ran down the elusive Rodgers for a huge sack on the final series. Wright is a playmaker on the d-line, always looking for the big play. He may "just" bring down the quarterback, but he wanted to knock out the football. Don't forget Wright's huge second half against Colorado State, in which he recorded six tackles, two sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown. Wright led the team in tackles along with middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Defensive linemen aren't supposed to lead a team in tackles, especially those who only play one half of football.
Manny owes much of the credit for his push against opposing lineman to the next Warren Sapp (no joke), who he lines up next to whenever he sees the field. Mike Patterson, who wears the same number as his Raider counterpart and is often called, "Baby Sapp," had an out-of-this-world performance against Cal two weeks ago; He recorded ten tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. The most underrated defensive lineman in the country did finally get some credit this week, as everybody but Beano Cook named him, "National Defensive Player of the Week."
When these big three don't get a significant push inside, and can't rattle the opposing QB, a host of role players get it done on the outside. Against Virginia Tech and Colorado State, true freshman Jeff Schweiger practically lived in the Hokie and Ram backfields, recording two sacks. Redshirt freshman standout, Lawrence Jackson, stepped up against Stanford and Cal, and recorded three sacks. Frostee Rucker was effective against ASU, and recorded has first full sack of the season on Andrew Walter. When Stanford tight end Alex Smith could actually handle the speed of Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker on the end, it was time for Orgeron to reveal a secret weapon; that weapon is the first part-time USC defensive end to wear the number 55 since All-American Willie McGinest. Not only did the new "5-5," Keith Rivers, constantly blow by Alex Smith, he ran over Cardinal QB Trent Edwards, sacking him once and knocking the ball loose a second time as Edwards rolled out of the pocket. The surprising element of River's game is that he actually has a strong push up front. Seldom do you find an 18-year-old weighing 230 pounds that can tussle with a big tackle or tight end. This is the first time Keith has ever played end, but he pushes from the three-point stance like a veteran end.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of having a deep and talented rotation on the defensive front is that it allows the Bunch to remain fresh down to the final snap. With just over a minute remaining in an all-out slugfest against Cal, Manny Wright still had the juice to run down speedy Rodgers and make a huge sack. When a member of the Wild Bunch lines up against an opposing lineman, not only does he have a huge advantage skill-wise, he's also very well rested. The coaching schemes, the variety of skills, and the rotation itself, make this Wild Bunch a group like no other in the nation. The Auburn's, Oklahoma's and Miami's of the country may not believe it. But Aaron Rodgers understands the might of the Wild Bunch, and so does Andrew Walter. It's hard for many quarterbacks, linemen and tailbacks across the country to understand, but when you're lying flat on your back, staring up at a bright, blue Los Angeles sky, you understand why they're the "Wild Bunch."
Danny Page is a junior who also serves as the color commentator for USC football on KSCR 1560 AM.