5. Arizona 41, California 38 (2 OT), Arizona Stadium, Nov. 15, 1997
A year after losing at Cal in four overtimes (No. 4-ranked game on this list), Arizona outlasted the Golden Bears in a double-overtime game in Tucson.
Arizona Mark McDonald booted a career-long 43-yard field goal to give Arizona the victory. On the first possession of overtime, Arizona’s Keith Smith passed 23 yards to Brad Brennan to the California 7-yard line. Smith then hit Dennis Northcutt with a five-yard pass for a 38-31 lead.
Justin Vedder ran 22 yards on Cal’s first play of overtime to the 3 and Tarik Smith immediately scored from there. Tim Wolleck’s extra point tied it at 38-38.
Wolleck missed a 40-yard field goal attempt in Cal’s second overtime, setting up McDonald’s heroics from 43 yards.
4. California 56, Arizona 55 (4 OT), Memorial Stadium (Berkeley, Calif.), Nov. 2, 1996
In the first year of overtime in college football, Arizona and Cal took it to the extreme. Arizona quarterback Keith Smith completed five touchdown passes and ran for two more but it was not enough in what was the longest game in major college football history at that point.
In a risky move that resulted in the loss for Arizona, coach Dick Tomey elected to go for the victory rather than send the game into a fifth overtime after the UA scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 56-55. Arizona lined up for the extra point, but holder Ryan Hesson took the snap and flipped it over his head to kicker Matt Peyton, who was tackled immediately by a Cal defender to end the game.
“Even though this is a devastating feeling, someday someone will say that’s the greatest college football game ever played,” Tomey told reporters after the game. “I guess it’s better than both teams walking off the field talking to themselves (after a tie).”
3. Arizona 24, California 20, Arizona Stadium, Nov. 11, 2006
Arizona fans and its players on the 1983 and 1993 teams must have really enjoyed this one in Tucson (read the top two games in this series below). Those were the years Cal rallied at home to force the Wildcats off the road toward a prosperous finish, including a trip to the Rose Bowl in 1993. This was Arizona’s turn to derail the Golden Bears, who had a BCS title and Rose Bowl appearance in their sight.
California, on an eight-game winning streak after losing the season-opener at Tennessee, was 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-10 when it came to Tucson late in the 2006 season. A showdown for the Pac-10 title loomed a week later against USC for Cal but Arizona, 4-5 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-10, had other plans. The Wildcats, who upset No. 25 Washington State in Pullman a week prior to the game, were shutout against the Golden Bears in the two previous meetings. They were outscored 66-0 in those games.
Arizona went ahead 24-17 early in the fourth quarter when cornerback Antoine Cason returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.
On the next series, Cal quarterback Nate Longshore hit Lavelle Hawkins behind the Arizona secondary. But with no one between him and the end zone, Hawkins stumbled at about the 10 and landed at the Wildcats’ 1. Cal failed to score on two Marshawn Lynch runs and an incomplete pass and settled for a 20-yard field goal by Tom Schneider.
Cal came close to scoring on its final drive. Longshore hit Jackson for an apparent 63-yard touchdown pass with 2:18 to play. But the score was nullified by a video review, which showed that Jackson stepped out at Arizona’s 41.
2. Arizona 33, California 33, Memorial Stadium (Berkeley, Calif.), Oct. 1, 1983
Arizona was 4-0 and ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press — its highest ranking in the program’s history. The Wildcats allowed only 22 points in their first four games and looked like they were about to subdue another opponent defensively as Cal mustered only a field goal with 6:47 left in the third quarter.
That’s when Arizona All-American linebacker Ricky Hunley scored a touchdown on a 57-yard interception return. The Wildcats led 26-3. They appeared headed for a 5-0 record with five of their final six games in the state of Arizona — four at home and the season-ending game at ASU. Banned from a bowl by the NCAA — which placed Arizona under probation in 1983 and 1984 for recruiting violations before Larry Smith was hired — the Wildcats could at least shoot for a perfect record.
Cal quarterback Gale Gilbert, who passed for a career-high 344 yards, threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Andy Bark with 8:32 left in the game to cut the Arizona lead to 33-23. A pass from Gilbert to Bark also set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Scott Smith with 4:26 remaining and Randy Pratt’s 22-yard field goal with 48 seconds left tied the game at 33. Pratt’s field goal occurred after linebacker Hardy Nickerson recovered a fumble at the Arizona 21-yard line.
1. California 24, Arizona 20, Memorial Stadium (Berkeley, Calif.), Nov. 13, 1993
If Arizona and the “Desert Swarm” defense wins this game — the Cats were ahead 20-0 at halftime against a Cal team on a four-game losing streak — the UA smells roses for the first time. The Rose Bowl drought for Arizona would continue, however, as Cal scored 24 unanswered points in the second half, 17 of them in the fourth quarter, to pull off the upset.
Cal safety Eric Zomalt returned an interception thrown by UA quarterback Dan White for 35 yards for a score with 3:38 left and then broke up a last-second desperation pass from from White to Terry Vaughn into the end zone as the Golden Bears, 6-4 overall, pulled out the upset over the Wildcats (8-2).
Before the 24-point outburst in the second half, the Golden Bears went eight quarters without scoring.
“When you’re ahead most of the game, that’s the toughest one to lose,” White is quoted as saying in an Associated Press article. “A few mistakes here and there killed us.”
WILDABOUTAZCATS.net publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes blogs for Lindy’s College Sports, TucsonCitizen.com and Sports Illustrated-sponsored site ZonaZealots.com.