Arizona Football

This Date in Wildcat History: Arizona achieves its greatest win, upsetting No. 1 USC in 1981

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OCTOBER 10, 1981

Top-ranked USC entered its game against Arizona on this day in October 1981 with nine national titles. The Wildcats had not even won an outright conference title since 1941 (when they captured the Border Conference title that year with a 5-0 record).

Former Arizona cornerback Greg Turner (No. 40), shown here closing in on USC's Marcus Allen, keeps this press clipping handy to relive the memories of upsetting the top-ranked Trojans (Turner photo)

Arizona never played a top-ranked team before, let alone beat one. The Wildcats have played five No. 1 teams on the road since and have lost all five by an average margin of 19.4 points.

Moreover, the Wildcats had never beaten USC in nine games dating back to 1916. The Trojans would win six straight against Arizona afterward.

These facts are a significant reason why the Wildcats’ unforeseen 13-10 upset of the top-ranked Trojans and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen is the greatest victory in school history. Today marks the 31st anniversary of the historic win at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The Wildcats were 2-2, having played their first four games at home. USC was 4-0 with wins over Tennessee and Oklahoma at the Coliseum.

Despite all the odds against them, the Wildcats believed in their opportunity because of how the late Larry Smith, who passed away in 2008, motivated them.

“I remember Coach Smith saying, ‘Sixty men together on the same page can’t lose,’” Julius Holt, a junior defensive tackle in 1981, told me.

Holt danced about and yelled loud enough for everyone to hear near the Arizona locker room after the upset: “We came to play! They came to sleep!”

The only USC player who lived up to the Trojans’ No. 1 hype was Allen, who gained 211 yards in 26 carries and extended his NCAA record of consecutive 200-yard rushing games to five.

Other Oct. 10 happenings of note

— No. 10 Arizona loses at home to No. 5 UCLA 52-28 in 1998. That turns out to be the Wildcats’ only loss that season. They finish 12-1, the closest UA has been to achieving a spot in the Rose Bowl. It is the 16th greatest game in the history of Arizona football, according to my rankings.

Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner

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