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. 9 as the kickoff to the Wildcats’ season — and the start of the Rich Rodriguez era — is only nine days away.
SCORE: No. 5 Arizona Wildcats 23, No. 14 Nebraska Cornhuskers 20
DATE: Dec. 30, 1998
SITE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, 64,607 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: UCLA’s shocking loss to Miami 25 days before this Holiday Bowl showdown cost Arizona a shot at its first Rose Bowl, but the Wildcats did not play as if they did not want to be in San Diego.
That’s a testament to Dick Tomey’s ability to keep the 1998 team focused. Facing the storied program of Nebraska, which was the defending national co-champs, helped Arizona’s motivation. The Wildcats secured the school’s best record (12-1) in the program’s history and earned its highest ranking to end the season at No. 4. The Holiday Bowl game was also the most watched of any college game in ESPN history.
“He kept telling us the ‘N’ (on Nebraska’s helmet) stood for ‘Not today,’” former UA receiver and special teams player Brandon Nash told TucsonCitizen.com’s Anthony Gimino in a 2009 article.
“Every time we saw that helmet, he wanted us to think, ‘Not today, not today.’ You look back at that now, and it sounds so corny, but that has stuck with me forever and it was very motivating back then.”
The Wildcats’ victory was a new experience for the Huskers (9-4), who saw their four-game winning streak in bowl games terminated. It was the first four-loss season for Nebraska since 1968. The defeat denied Frank Solich in his bid to become the school’s first coach to win 10 games in his first season.
[table “” not found /]
Arizona’s defense held the Nebraska option rushing attack to 87 net yards — the Huskers’ second-lowest output of the season — and the Wildcats broke free for 14 fourth-quarter points to beat the Cornhuskers.
Unanimous All-America cornerback Chris McAlister intercepted two passes, one which turned the Huskers back on their final drive with less than four minutes remaining. He also had a 78-yard reverse punt return called back because of a questionable illegal blocking call.
After Arizona trailed 13-9 at the half, the teams were at a stalemate through most of the third quarter before Arizona’s Dennis Northcutt gave the Cats some decent field position with a 16-yard punt return to start a 10-play scoring drive. Trung Canidate rushed five times for 37 yards in the drive, and Keith Smith completed passes of five yards to Northcutt and Paul Shields before completing a 15-yard pass to Brad Brennan for the score.
“The first thing I think about in that game is Brad Brennan’s catch,” Smith told Gimino. “There was a lot of pressure at that point of the game.
“We kind of looked at each other, and he broke off his route into a skinny post. I knew I had to zip it in there, and I threw it as hard as I could. He split two defenders and was excited to come out of that thing alive.”
Nebraska answered and regained the lead at 20-16 following an 88-yard drive, almost exclusively through the air.
With 10 minutes remaining, Smith opened UA’s next drive with a seven-yard pass to Shields, then the Cats ran the ball eight straight times for the nine-play, 68-yard drive which produced the final score of 23-20 on a Kelvin Eafon one-yard plunge. Smith had runs of 20, eight and eight yards to set up the score.
UA turned back the Huskers with McAlister’s second pick and then later used enough clock with a first down to force Nebraska to get the ball back with 34 seconds remaining. One short completion and three incompletions, and the game was over.
McAlister’s interception is one of the most memorable plays in the program’s history. He leaped high to snag the pass from Nebraska freshman Eric Crouch on a third-and-11 play from the Arizona 46. McAlister started the season with a kickoff return for a touchdown at Hawaii, and he basically ended the season with another big play.
“This is the happiest and saddest time of my life,” McAlister, a senior playing his last collegiate game, told reporters. “This was a tremendous win for the University of Arizona, and that makes me very happy. But I’ll never get to strap on my helmet as a Wildcat again … and that’s the sad part. I can’t believe it’s over.”
Canidate ran for 101 yards on 22 carries. Smith, who completed 11-of-19 passing for 143 yards and ran for 25, was named Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP. UA’s Mark McDonald, who was 8-of-17 in field goals during the regular season, turned in a perfect 3-for-3 performance, including a career-long 48-yarder.
“That game felt different than any game I played in at Arizona,” Smith told Gimino. “It kind of felt like what I thought the Super Bowl would feel like. It was like the lights were brighter. It was different. It was definitely fun to play in. It was probably the most fun I had in a football game.”
No. 10 — UA wins 1926 game after McKale delivers Salmon’s “Bear Down” line (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 11 — The Desert Swarm is born in 1992 near-upset of top-ranked Miami at the Orange Bowl (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 12 — Zendejas’ 57-yard FG ties UA record, keeps ASU out of Rose Bowl again (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 13 — Arizona blows 20-point lead and shot at the Rose Bowl with 1993 collapse at California (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 14 — UA upsets No. 2 UCLA in 1980 when Bruins appeared ready to be No. 1 (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 15 — L.A. Times reporter: Arizona shows “fight of wildcats” in 1914 game vs. Occidental (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 16 — UA leads UCLA late in third quarter but loses big in 12-1 season (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 17 — Unranked Arizona upsets Ohio State, Woody Hayes in Buckeyes’ 1967 opener in Columbus (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 18 — Arizona and hasty coach Mudra lose Ultimatum Bowl to ASU in 1968 (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 19 — Arizona keeps “The Streak” without loss to ASU alive in ’87 with bizarre finish that ends in tie (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 20 — Arizona fit to be tied with Cal despite leading 26-3 in third quarter (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 21 — Zendejas’ last-second 45-yard FG vs. ASU generates momentum for “The Streak” to endure (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 22 — Arizona wins its first bowl behind “Heat-seeking Missile” Chuck Cecil (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 23 — Collapse vs. Utah after leading 27-0 in fourth quarter changed the face of UA football (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 24 — UA shuts out ASU, Kush during dominating run for Sun Devils coach (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 25 — Arizona’s defense and Doug Pfaff’s last-second FG enough to upset sixth-ranked Oklahoma (WildAboutAZCats.com)
No. 26 — UA upsets ASU from Fiesta Bowl consideration in program’s best stretch (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 27 — Trung Canidate rushes for record 288 yards and three long TDs in ’98 shootout against ASU (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 28 — UA dominates No. 3 SMU, highest ranked non-conference foe to lose to Cats (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 29 — Arizona stuns second-ranked Oregon in most significant victory in Mike Stoops era (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 30 — Arizona win on last-second FG over ASU ends Kush dominance in series (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 31 — Arizona reaches its zenith under Stoops with victory over Brigham Young in Las Vegas Bowl (WildAboutAZCats.net)
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)