- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

PASADENA, Calif. — Tomorrow’s Rose Bowl showdown between top-ranked USC and No. 4 Michigan likely will be decided by the battle of the bunches.

The Trojans (12-1) feature the nation’s most daunting defensive line. The quartet from Troy dubbed “Wild Bunch II” anchors a USC defense which recorded an outrageous 46 sacks this season while ranking second in the nation against the rush (61.1 yards).

Michigan (10-2) counters with the college game’s best offensive live, a massive front of players averaging 6-foot-5, 309 pounds which paved the way for the Big Ten’s most balanced offense while yielding a league-low 15 sacks this season.

“We don’t have a fancy nickname or anything, but I guess you can call us the ‘Brawny Bunch’ or the ‘Burly Bunch’ or the ‘Beefy Bunch,’” said Michigan All-American offensive tackle Tony Pape yesterday. “You would think those USC guys could come up with something more original than ‘Wild Bunch II,’ but I guess we are talking about defensive linemen.”

Actually, the current crop of Trojans took the nickname from USC’s 1969 defensive line. Then-coach John McKay called that line, which featured three All-Americans, the best in history. Credit for the “Wild Bunch” moniker belongs to All-America defensive tackle and eventual white Bronco chauffeur Al Cowlings, who named the unit after the William Holden film.

And while Cowlings and Co. might have been more decorated, the name perfectly fits the present group of Trojans. Led by volatile defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, the architect of Miami’s dominating lines of the early-‘90s, USC’s front four is as entertaining off the field as it is on it.

Junior sack specialist Kenechi Udeze is the can’t-miss NFL prospect and the unit’s designated straight man. But Udeze’s oddball past more than makes up for his relatively understated demeanor.

“Udeze was a pantload when he was a freshman,” said junior defensive tackle Shaun Cody (101/2 tackles for loss, six sacks) yesterday. “Dude was like 365 pounds, and [defensive end Omar] Nazel called him ‘Crisco.’ He had to redshirt, man, because he couldn’t move, much less play ball.”

Udeze has since slimmed down to a sculpted 285 pounds thanks to an eternity in the weight room and a diet that allowed him to drink nothing but water for his entire freshman year. Udeze was virtually unblockable this season, recording 22 tackles for loss and 131/2 sacks en route to earning first-team consensus All-America honors.

Opposite Udeze is Nazel, a rangy fifth-year senior who missed the last three games of the season with a dislocated thumb but should return to the lineup tomorrow. Nazel, who had 61/2 tackles for loss and four sacks before the injury, is the unit’s spiritual leader.

“He’s our energy source,” said Cody. “He’s constantly keeping us amped up and loose. He never stops talking. And if the football thing doesn’t work out, he’s a comic genius.”

Nazel was last seen inducing hysteria with his dance routine Monday night when Wild Bunch II made an appearance on the “Tonight Show.”

And between Udeze and Nazel are the relentless Cody and fireplug nose tackle Mike Patterson, who is dubiously listed at 6-feet in the USC media guide.

“Yeah, that’s a fudge,” said Patterson yesterday. “You and I both know I wouldn’t be 5-10 with an Afro. But my shortness is my secret. Those big offensive linemen can barely see me. I’ve got a major leverage advantage.”

Despite their glib tongues, lighthearted behavior and comedic timing, there’s absolutely nothing funny about Wild Bunch II on the field.

“Those guys will tear you up,” Pape said. “I truly believe they are the backbone of that team. Look at the stats: they’ve had 46 sacks this season. Only one back has rushed for 100 yards or more against them in the last two years. That’s serious stuff. Those guys are so good that they rarely have to blitz. They rely on their front four to generate pressure and that allows them to drop seven [into pass coverage].

“Yeah, you watch those four guys on film and you realize you’ve got a major challenge in front of you. But it won’t be the first time this season we’ve been faced with a great defensive front.”

In their last game, Michigan faced an Ohio State defensive line that yielded just 50.5 yards a game, the fewest so late in the season by any team in more than a decade. But the Wolverines dominated the Buckeyes up front in Ann Arbor, gouging holes in the Ohio State front that allowed tailback Chris Perry to rush for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the 35-21 victory.

Continuity and experience are the hallmarks of the Michigan offensive line. The same five linemen started all 12 of Michigan’s games this season, a rarity for any unit on any team. All five of Michigan’s starters on the line are upperclassmen, and Pape and center Dave Pearson are fifth-year seniors. Pearson and senior guard David Baas joined Pape on the All-Big Ten team. And between them, Michigan’s front wall boasts an incredible 113 career starts.

“That matchup between their offensive line and our defensive line is the key,” said Orgeron, virtually working himself into a lather as he excitedly addressed the media yesterday. “That’s their best group versus our best group. They have a superb offensive line, easily the best we will have faced this year. Their footwork is excellent. They are extremely well-coached. They are almost flawless when it comes to their assignments. And they pick up stunts and blitzes extremely well.

“Our defensive scheme is predicated on stopping the run and getting to the quarterback with just our front four. And they want to run the football, and they’re extremely sack-stingy no matter how many you bring. Add it all up, and you’ve got the makings for one heck of a clash up front and an unforgettable game.”

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