Gimino: 5 biggest home games in Arizona history

Published: Sep. 22, 2015 at 3:33 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 4:24 PM MST
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Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona is playing a top 10 team in a battle of unbeatens in its Pac-12 opener. ESPN's popular College GameDay program will be in Tucson. The Wildcats are breaking out shiny red chrome helmets for a prime-time game.

No need to hide it: This is going to huge.

Isn't football fun?

"All the games are big, but as I told the team, you can sense the big-game feel on campus this week," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of Saturday night's showdown against ninth-ranked UCLA.

"Whether I want to preach it or not, it's going to be there. GameDay is coming to town and there will be a lot of buzz about it all week. It's conference play in the same division against a highly-rated, undefeated team.

"As I told them, I think you come to play Division I football with this kind of game and atmosphere in mind."

And with all that in mind, I figured it was time to revisit my list of the biggest home games in Arizona history during the Pac-10/Pac-12 years.

This ranking is more art than science. I didn't come up with a strict formula or anything, but criteria to be considered were pregame hype, the stakes of the game and then the actual game itself. Was it close? Was it memorable?

We'll have to wait to see how this Arizona-UCLA matchup fits on the list, if at all.

Since I last did this ranking, there has been a change, and you won't need a long memory to recall the new No. 1 game. Anyway, let's start the countdown ...

Stakes: Keep ASU from Rose Bowl

Atmosphere: Turn ASU roses from red to black

Crowd: 58,267

Score: Arizona 28, ASU 16

ASU fans brought roses to Arizona Stadium as the sixth-ranked Sun Devils just needed to beat a 5-4-1 Arizona team to get to its first Rose Bowl. The Wildcats were coming off a 13-7 at Oregon, giving the Ducks their first win of the season.

UA didn't have much hope. ASU ruled the rivalry at that time, having won 15 of the previous 17 matchups. Arizona's All-American linebacker Ricky Hunley, in the only college game he would miss, was out because of a thumb injury.

But a big play set the tone early. Quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe, reacting to a safety blitz, hit Brian Holland with a short pass over the middle as Holland then raced 92 yards for a touchdown. Brad Anderson later scored on a 65-yard catch. UA nose guard Joe Drake recorded two safeties.

Arizona led 26-0 after three quarters, and its win sent UCLA to the Rose Bowl instead of ASU.

Coach Larry Smith told the Arizona Daily Star years later that it was the most important win of his tenure, as it began a glorious nine-year unbeaten streak against ASU.

Stakes: Pac-10 driver's seat

Atmosphere: Still abuzz over Leap by the Lake

Crowd: 58,738

Score: UCLA 52, Arizona 28

Arizona was ranked 10th, UCLA was third, making this the first Pac-10 meeting of top-10 teams in seven years ... which is kind of hard to believe. While ABC yawned, opting to televise No. 21 Notre Dame at 2-2 Arizona State instead, Tucson could not have been more amped, still on a high after Ortege Jenkins' flip into the end zone that beat Washington a week earlier.

Like this week's matchup, it was early in the conference season, so the stakes weren't completely clear. Turns out, though, that this game turned out to be winner-take-all.

It was quite a show through three quarters, with the Bruins holding a 31-28 lead. But one play early in the fourth quarter made all the difference.

McNown, as he had earlier in the game, ran down the line to his left, showing option. This time, however, he stopped, dropped back and hit a wide-open Danny Farmer for a 64-yard touchdown. All-American cornerback Chris McAlister had fallen for the fake.

"We ran a couple of options on them a few times and the corners blew off the wide receivers," McNown said after the game. "We had a feeling that it was going to work."

UCLA scored 21 fourth-quarter points and won 52-28. The Bruins went unbeaten in conference play, while Arizona finished 11-1 in the regular season and went on to beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

Stakes: Late control of Pac-10 race

Atmosphere: College GameDay made its first Tucson appearance

Crowd: 57,863

Score: Oregon 44, Arizona 41 (2 OT)

The Wildcats were 4-2 in the league but were in control of their fate, needing to beat Oregon and then follow with road wins over ASU and USC to win the conference.

Arizona was on its way to taking the first step, leading 24-14 early in the fourth quarter and hanging on in the final minute as fans poured out of the stands, anticipating victory, only to be sent back to their seats when the Ducks, after converting fourth-and-4 at the UA 22, tied the game with a 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left.

The premature celebration led to the construction of a restraining wall in front of the Arizona student section.

Oregon won 44-41 in double overtime, with Jeremiah Masoli keeping on a 1-yard touchdown run.

The Ducks went on to win the Pac-10 while Arizona, after beating the Sun Devils and Trojans on the road, earned a Holiday Bowl berth, while forever wondering what would have happened that season if Rob Gronkowski hadn't been sitting out with a back injury.

Stakes: A chance to beat the No. 1 team

Atmosphere: Keith Jackson on the call was as big as GameDay

Crowd: 58,510

Score: Arizona 16, Washington 3

You can frequently find a replay of this game on the Pac-12 Networks, as Arizona freshman cornerback Sammy Morrison did as he walked into the locker room after a summer workout. He got a chance to watch the famed Desert Swarm defense and his dad, cornerback Darryl Morrison, shut down the top-ranked Huskies.

"I just know from what my dad told me -- it's one of the greatest defenses ever," Sammy said. "It was a great time to be an Arizona Wildcats fan."

The game capped one of the most remarkable turnarounds ever. Arizona had only managed to tie a woeful Oregon State team early in the season, but then came within a whisker of upsetting No. 1 Miami, falling 8-7 after missing a last-second 51-yard field goal try at the Orange Bowl.

Then the Cats beat No. 11 UCLA, No. 8 Stanford and were on a four-game winning streak heading into the game against Washington, which had won 22 games in a row, including a 54-0 whitewash of the Wildcats a year earlier.

Arizona's defense dominated (and punter Josh Miller was a hero for pinning Washington deep all day). The Wildcats held Washington, playing with quarterback Mark Brunell because starter Billy Joe Hobert had been suspended that week, to 333 total yards.

Sadly for Arizona, the momentum ended there, as it lost its final two games of the regular season in painful fashion -- 14-7 at USC on a fourth-quarter halfback touchdown pass from Deon Strother, and 7-6 to Arizona State on a 51-yard tackle-breaking run from Kevin Galbreath.

Stakes: The Pac-12 South title

Atmosphere: Nervous scoreboard watching

Crowd: 56,083

Score: Arizona 42, Arizona State 35

Over in Pasadena, UCLA would win the Pac-12 South if it beat Stanford in a game that started at the same time as Arizona-ASU. The Cardinal controlled the game and easily pulled off the upset, which meant that the winner of the Territorial Cup would win the division and go on to the Pac-12 title game.

In a wild game befitting the crazy history of the rivalry, the Wildcats scored on defense, blocked a punt, scored on two plays of at least 69 yards, made a goal-line stand, had 15 tackles for loss and came up with a white-knuckled defensive stop for the ages to beat Arizona State 42-35 in the school's most significant victory in more than 100 years of football.

The Sun Devils crossed midfield late in the game, helped by a pass interference call, but the Wildcats forced an incompletion on fourth-and-12 and then ran out the clock.

Arizona wrested the Cup away from Arizona State, which had won the first two meetings between its coach, Todd Graham, and UA's Rich Rodriguez. Imagine the offseason angst in Tucson if RichRod had fallen to 0-3 vs. ASU.

"Really nice," he said with a smile, about not having to answer questions about his record vs. ASU. "You try to not put more pressure on a rivalry game, but let's be honest, there is."

- - -

Just missed the cut ...

UCLA 24, Arizona 19; Nov. 9, 1985

The Wildcats, if they could win their final three games, would be the Pac-10 champs. Arizona rallied after trailing 17-0 at halftime, but the game ended with the Wildcats at the UCLA 32. Arizona would win those final two games to finish 5-2 in the league. UCLA won at 6-2.

Arizona 34, Arizona State 17; Nov. 22, 1986

The fourth-ranked Sun Devils had already clinched their first Pac-10 title, but the Wildcats still found a way to be spoilers with a shocking win and the most memorable play in school history -- Chuck Cecil's 106-yard interception return for a touchdown.