Meet the ‘Wild Bunch’

The indelible image of Sam Peckinpah’s film “The Wild Bunch” isn’t the human violence, though there’s plenty of that, it’s the opening sequence. William Holden rides up on a group of kids in a dusty railroad town in Texas. They’re circled around an anthill, pushing a pair of scorpions to their death with a twig. The kids watch and giggle as the scorpions are swarmed by hundreds of tiny red ants and Peckinpah zooms in closer and closer. It’s relentless and stomach-churning.

“Only a madman could call this creation…It’s pure wasted insanity!” one audience member wrote on his reaction card at the first U.S. screening on May 1, 1969 in Kansas City. Credit to that person for sticking it out through the whole movie to fill out his card. Many had not.

That’s “The Wild Bunch.” It also might be the inspirational nickname for the Southern Miss defense Nebraska will face on Saturday.

“I think they call themselves the Wild Bunch, I’m not sure” quarterback Taylor Martinez said. “I think Coach Beck told us that.”

Whether it’s an official nickname or not – there seems to be no reference to it from Southern Miss — it’s a good one, right up there with the Wrecking Crew, Desert Swarm, and, yes, Blackshirts. If the name hasn’t stuck yet, new head coach Ellis Johnson has the defensive chops to make it a possibility.

Over the course of his 36-year career, Johnson has been the defensive coordinator at eight different stops, including Clemson, Mississippi State, and Alabama. Most recently, he led the South Carolina defense the last four years. The Gamecocks finished in the top 15 in total defense in three of those years, and ranked third nationally last year. Johnson knows defense and he knows the South.

These are good times to be a coach in Conference-USA. The population shift to the Sun Belt, as well as the insane devotion to football, has left a lot of talented players for schools like Southern Miss, Central Florida, and Houston.Too many for just the southern powers to take. Scroll through the Golden Eagles roster and you’ll find a slew of guys, particularly on defense, who had SEC offers.

Those are the guys coming to Lincoln on Saturday. Hybrid defensive end/linebacker Jamie Collins chose Southern Miss over a scholarship offer from Auburn. He, along with safety Jacorius Cotton, the other top tackler back from 2011, were both recruited as “athletes” out of high school. Cornerback Deron Wilson received interest from Oklahoma, and offers from Mississippi State and Kansas State. He led the team in interceptions last year. Combined, those three players have started 62 games over the past three years.

While Southern Miss has plenty of questions on offense, defensively this doesn’t look like your typical Conference-USA squad.

“They’re probably more like a South Carolina than anybody,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “They’re a team that can really run and change direction well. They’ve got a lot of playmakers on that side of the ball. They’re a very aggressive team.”

Many in Nebraska are anxious to see what the Huskers’ offense looks like in year two under coach Beck, but Southern Miss might make a one-game evaluation tricky. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

The Eagles will run a 4-2-5 defense that’s constantly shifting based on the situation. Collins (6-4, 239) plays the Bandit spot, dropping down to be a rush end at times while playing linebacker at others. Jerrion Johnson (6-1, 195) plays the Spur position, similar to how Nebraska has used guys like Dejon Gomes and Eric Hagg in the past. It’s nothing new – Southern Miss ran the same defense last year – but it has become the go-to setup for slowing the spread offense.

Is Southern Miss poised to do it? Nebraska has plenty of its own bullets to fire on offense. It should be fascinating to watch when the Huskers have the ball. On paper, it looks like a fast-paced, violent, and exciting shootout befitting of, well, the final scene in “The Wild Bunch.”

If you haven’t seen it before, I won’t spoil the ending here. You should watch it, either before this week’s game or after. It’s a classic.

We’ll see if Saturday offers something similar.