Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is 42 days away. To go along with the countdown to kickoff, this site will publish the Top 50 games in Wildcat football history.
SCORE: USC Trojans 48, Arizona Wildcats 41
DATE: Nov. 13, 1982
SITE: Arizona Stadium, 55,110 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Although it was a loss for Arizona, this game not only merits a ranking, it has to be considered one of the most exciting games to be played at Arizona Stadium.
Think of it this way: How many games have four interceptions returned for a touchdown? USC had three of them off UA quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe, tying an NCAA record. Tunnicliffe still managed to pass for 303 yards and three touchdowns in the wild game that gave the Wildcats the distinction at the time for having the most points for a losing team in Pac-10 history.
The game also had postseason implications for Arizona, which was 5-2-1 and on a four-game winning streak — started with a 16-13 win at No. 9 Notre Dame. USC, 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the conference after the win, was ineligible for postseason play because it was in the first year of a two-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations. The loss to the Trojans followed by an upset 13-7 defeat at previously winless Oregon the following week effectively knocked Arizona out of a potential bowl.
The 48-41 loss to USC also featured four lost fumbles by the Trojans — three in the first quarter — and an interception for a return for a touchdown — also in the first quarter — by Arizona linebacker Steve Boadway. The Wildcats mustered only a 13-3 lead after those four USC miscues, settling for field goals of 19 and 26 yards by Max Zendejas (who also missed from 43 yards). USC’s defense, which ranked in the top five of most of the major national defensive categories, held firm.
The turnovers were practically even for both teams, but USC came up with two that had the most impact on the outcome.
The first was a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Joey Browner on the final play of the first half, turning a 20-17 Arizona lead into a 24-20 Trojan advantage. The second key Arizona gaffe came with 5:47 left in the game, the Trojans clinging to a 41-34 lead (after having been on top, 41-20) and the Wildcats at the USC 45.
On third and one, Arizona tailback Vance Johnson went 4 yards for a first down, but USC’s Darrel Hopper ripped the ball from his grasp and went 41 yards the other way for the touchdown. It was ruled an intercepted fumble, and it gave USC a piece of the record for most interceptions returned for a touchdown in a game.
Arizona got within a touchdown again and was going to get the ball back in good field position with two minutes left. However, an official made a controversial call that Arizona’s Al “Bubba” Gross threw an elbow at USC punter David Pryor on the play, USC retained possession and ran out the clock.
“There were 100 key plays tonight,” USC coach John Robinson told reporters after the game. “There were so many dramatic plays it was hard to keep track. We deserved to be ahead at the end. The game was out of control. It was a wild type that didn’t follow a script.”
Arizona coach Larry Smith said in his press conference: “It was a great football game. I’m sure everyone got their money’s worth. We made a lot of mistakes and probably deserved to get beat.”
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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.