Arizona Football

No. 31 — Arizona reaches its zenith under Stoops with victory over Brigham Young in Las Vegas Bowl

In the 50 days leading up to Arizona’s season-opener against Toledo, on Sept. 1 at Arizona Stadium, TucsonCitizen.com and its affiliate WildAboutAZCats.net will rank the Top 50 games in the history of the football program. The ranking is at No. 31 as the kickoff to the Wildcats’ season — and the start of the Rich Rodriguez era — is only 31 days away.

SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 31, Brigham Young Cougars 21

DATE: Dec. 20, 2008

SITE: Las Vegas Bowl, Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev. — 40,047 in attendance

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: It did not feel like it at the time, but this victory over BYU was as good as it would get in the eight-year Mike Stoops Era at Arizona.

Another win for Stoops was more important — the upset of No. 2 Oregon the previous year — in the grand scheme of the program. This victory, however, merits a ranking because of the depths the Wildcats emerged from after their last bowl appearance in 1998 when they beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. They suffered through 10 straight non-winning seasons, including the failed John Mackovic experiment. The euphoria of Arizona’s win over BYU prompted Stoops to talk optimistically about Arizona’s future.

“This has been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs, to get this means a lot to me, and for these seniors,” Stoops said. “It hopefully shows that what we already knew and that this program is headed in the right direction.”

Mike Stoops, left, holds his son while linebacker Ronnie Palmer holds the trophy celebrating Arizona’s 31-21 win over BYU in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl (Tucson Ciitzen archive photo)

The fact is Arizona tapped out under Stoops with this win. The Wildcats went 8-5 the following year, capped by a 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. They started 2010 with a 7-1 record, including a 37-34 thriller over No. 9 Iowa at Arizona Stadium. But then the bottom fell out, as the UA lost its last five games that season and started 2011 with a 1-5 record, prompting athletic director Greg Byrne to fire Stoops.

Arizona actually feared it might lose Stoops, in his fifth year in Tucson, leading up to the Las Vegas Bowl. Rumors ran rampant that he could be headed to Iowa State to be the head coach, but they were false.

“This is a really big thing for our program. It will bring in a lot of recruits,” safety Cam Nelson was quoted as saying in a Tucson Citizen article written by John Moredich. “We heard a lot of rumors this week and a lot of guys were worried about losing out coach, but it is great to have coach Stoops back. He has worked so hard. This win means so much to everybody.”

The Wildcats took a 31-14 lead with 6:09 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 6-yard Willie Tuitama touchdown run. The Cougars (10-3) cut the lead to 31-21, scoring a touchdown on the following possession. They recovered an on-side kick with 3:30 remaining. Arizona’s defense held firm and BYU’s 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright with 2:07 left. Victory was finally in hand for Arizona.

Arizona receiver Mike Thomas caught the last play of the game for a three-yard pass. It was his career reception 259, good enough to become the all-time Pac-10 leader in receiving.

Tuitama earned the MVP trophy after completing 24 of 35 passes for 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Coincidentally, the game was the last in a Wildcat uniform for high-profile tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the 2009 season with a back injury. He entered the NFL draft in 2010 despite having two years of eligibility remaining at Arizona.

The countdown:

No. 32 — Arizona owed Cal a couple, knock Bears out of BCS title, Rose Bowl run (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 33 — Arizona’s 10-9 loss at Oregon in 1994, derailing its Rose Bowl hopes, still hurts (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 34 — ASU ripe for picking in banana uniforms for “The Streak” to reach eight (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 35 — Arizona tries risky fake PAT to beat California but loses in epic 4 overtime game (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 36 — Veal to Hill “Hail Mary” pass highlights “The Streak” reaching seven games against ASU (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 37 — USC outlasts Arizona 48-41 in one of most wild games played in Tucson (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 38 — Arizona shows signs of life under Stoops with rout over No. 7 UCLA (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 39 — Art Luppino “The Cactus Comet” rockets toward 38 yards per carry and five touchdowns (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 40 — Fumblerooski enables Arizona to sweep USC, UCLA in L.A. for first time (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 41 — Sun Devil nemesis Dan White quarterbacks Arizona into Fiesta Bowl with win over ASU (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 42 — Struggling UA gets improbable win against ’83 Pac-10 champ UCLA (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 43 — Closing chapter of “The Streak” includes Arizona’s dramatic fourth-quarter heroics (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 44 — Arizona overcomes rival Texas Tech with unfathomable late-game rally (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 45 — Dick Tomey, the Desert Fox, does a number on UCLA by changing offense in midseason (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 46 — “The Streak” reaches three games, UA achieves best Pac-10 finish (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 47 — Arizona’s first game at Arizona Stadium in 1929, a 35-0 win over Cal Tech (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 48 — Underdog Arizona’s 2011 thriller over arch-rival Arizona State (TucsonCitizen.com)

No. 49 — Arizona’s first win over arch-rival Arizona State, then known as Territorial Normal (WildAboutAZCats.net)

No. 50 — Arizona’s first win in program’s history: 22-5 over Tucson Indians (TucsonCitizen.com)

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