Arizona Football

Scheduling of Nebraska rivals that of Notre Dame as most significant in Arizona history


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Arizona and Nebraska have faced each other twice in the Holiday Bowl, including in this picture, taken in the 1998 game won by the Wildcats 23-20.

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Fifteen seasons from now, when Rich Rodriguez will likely be retired from coaching, the Wildcats will face presently one of college football’s top five victorious programs in the history of the sport.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers, with one of the strongest fan bases known for traveling well, will invade Arizona Stadium in one of the most anticipated non-Pac-12 games since Ohio State came to town in 2000. Nebraska’s trip to Tucson will end a long 31-year stretch without a top 10 winning program coming to Tucson (in case you’re wondering, USC is at No. 13).

The only other top five school to make its way to Arizona Stadium was Notre Dame in 1980, easily the most significant game ever scheduled to be played in Tucson. It will be a long 51 years between two top five winning programs visiting Arizona in the 2031 game.

Nebraska and Arizona announced on Wednesday a home-and-home arrangement with the Wildcats first visiting Lincoln, Neb., in 2028. Arizona and Kansas State will also play each other in 2024 and 2025 with Kansas State hosting the first game.

Rodriguez will be 68 when Nebraska takes on the Wildcats in Tucson in 2031. Nebraska coach Mike Riley will be 78. Both programs will likely be led by somebody else by then.

Every entrance at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium has the following phrase: “Through these gates pass the Greatest Fans in College Football.”

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ARIZONA VS. TOP 25 WINNINGEST
NON-CONFERENCE PROGRAMS IN TUCSON

Note: Overall ranking by victories of opponents listed below are No. 2 Notre Dame (892 wins), No. 6 Ohio State (875), No. 8 Oklahoma (861), No. 16 LSU (770) and No. 19 Auburn (741). Nebraska, which will play in Tucson in 2031, is currently No. 5 with 880 victories.

Date Team W/L Score
10/25/1980 Notre Dame L 20-3
09/09/2000 Ohio State L 27-17
09/16/1989 Oklahoma W 6-3
09/06/2003 LSU L 59-13
09/11/1976 Auburn W 31-19

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Nebraska owns an NCAA record streak of 347 consecutive sellouts at Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers’ fans are known as, “The Sea of Red”, with waves of red-clad Husker fans following Nebraska at home and on the road. Fans have packed Memorial Stadium for every game there since 1962, a year after Arizona tied Nebraska 14-14 there in the last regular season game between the programs.

More than 60,000 Husker fans went to Pasadena for the 2002 Rose Bowl. A year before that, an estimated 30,000 Huskers were in South Bend, Ind., for a game against Notre Dame. When Nebraska plays at Arizona Stadium, the Cornhusker fans could number close to 10,000.




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Indicative of the fans’ craze over Nebraska: Riley’s first spring game last year was attended by 76,881 spectators.

Given that Nebraska is historically a top five-winning program with 11 national titles with an unmatched passionate fan base, Greg Byrne’s scheduling of the Cornhuskers rivals that of Notre Dame as the most significant scheduling coup in Arizona history.

Ohio State and Oklahoma have also played at Arizona Stadium, tremendous scheduling achievements as well, but nothing tops the ability of the late Dave Strack scheduling in 1973 a home-and-home with Notre Dame in 1980 and 1982.

“We are negotiating all of the time with universities we’d like to have on our schedule,” Strack, Arizona’s athletic director from 1972 to 1982, told the Tucson Citizen. In an understatement, Strack added that scheduling Notre Dame was “a boost for the program.”

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Arizona lost 20-3 when Notre Dame came to Tucson in 1980, which was Larry Smith’s first season as the Wildcats’ head coach. The Wildcats defeated the Irish two years later in South Bend on a last-second 47-yard field goal by Max Zendejas, one of the top 10 victories in the program’s history.

When second-ranked Notre Dame and coach Dan Devine visited Tucson in 1980, the stadium was filled to capacity (56,211) for the night game. The Fighting Irish wore green numerals on their jerseys and their golden domes reflected off the lights of Arizona Stadium. That was all that was brilliant in the game because Arizona’s performance was dismal as freshman quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe, making his first college start, threw for only 95 yards.

Arizona had only only 165 yards of total offense and was held without a touchdown at Arizona Stadium for the first time in 15 years. The following week, only 42,876 showed up at Arizona Stadium for the game against No. 2 UCLA. Those who did not abandon the Wildcats after the Notre Dame loss, witnessed one of the school’s greatest upsets, a 23-17 win over the Bruins.

Fifteen seasons from now it will be interesting if Arizona can match Nebraska play by play unlike the performance in the Notre Dame game in Tucson or when the Wildcats last played the Cornhuskers in the 2009 Holiday Bowl (a 33-0 loss). Will Arizona’s program finally come of age by then with at least one trip to the Rose Bowl in between?

I’ll be 64 (hopefully still around) to finally see the first top 10 program historically at Arizona Stadium in three decades. That’s not a once-in-a-lifetime experience but it feels that way.

ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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