Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is 35 days away. To go along with the countdown to kickoff, this site will publish the Top 50 games in Wildcat football history.
SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 31, Brigham Young Cougars 21
DATE: Dec. 20, 2008
SITE: Las Vegas Bowl, Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev. — 40,047 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: It did not feel like it at the time, but this victory over BYU was as good as it would get in the eight-year Mike Stoops Era at Arizona.
Another win for Stoops was more important — the upset of No. 2 Oregon the previous year — in the grand scheme of the program. This victory, however, merits a ranking because of the depths the Wildcats emerged from after their last bowl appearance in 1998 when they beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. They suffered through 10 straight non-winning seasons, including the failed John Mackovic experiment. The euphoria of Arizona’s win over BYU prompted Stoops to talk optimistically about Arizona’s future.
“This has been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs, to get this means a lot to me, and for these seniors,” Stoops said. “It hopefully shows that what we already knew and that this program is headed in the right direction.”
The fact is Arizona tapped out under Stoops with this win. The Wildcats went 8-5 the following year, capped by a 33-0 loss to Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. They started 2010 with a 7-1 record, including a 37-34 thriller over No. 9 Iowa at Arizona Stadium. But then the bottom fell out, as the UA lost its last five games that season and started 2011 with a 1-5 record, prompting athletic director Greg Byrne to fire Stoops.
Arizona actually feared it might lose Stoops, in his fifth year in Tucson, leading up to the Las Vegas Bowl. Rumors ran rampant that he could be headed to Iowa State to be the head coach, but they were false.
“This is a really big thing for our program. It will bring in a lot of recruits,” safety Cam Nelson was quoted as saying in a Tucson Citizen article written by John Moredich. “We heard a lot of rumors this week and a lot of guys were worried about losing out coach, but it is great to have coach Stoops back. He has worked so hard. This win means so much to everybody.”
From the Press Box — Dave Silver, former KGUN-TV (Channel 9) sports director
“The thing that stands out most was how cold Las Vegas was during the entire week. I believe they had more snow that week than anytime in history. It was interesting to watch the UA players adapt to the weather during the practices.(And the snowball fights, as well). Personally, I was doing LIVE reports at night, standing in a couple inches of snow. I can see that happening in a cold weather city, but not Las Vegas. By game time on Saturday night, it was relatively cool, the snow had melted and the ‘Cats played a solid game to beat BYU.”
From the Press Box — Jay Gonzales, former Arizona football beat reporter for the Arizona Daily Star
“This was the team that many of us believed was going to be the turning point for the future under Mike Stoops. As it turned out we were wrong as Stoops was gone not too long after that. The guy you really felt great for was Willie Tuitama. He has been through so much since the day LSU nearly killed him. It was too bad the clock had run out for Tuitama as he has used his eligibility. This was the high point of the Stoops era.”
The Wildcats took a 31-14 lead with 6:09 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 6-yard Willie Tuitama touchdown run. The Cougars (10-3) cut the lead to 31-21, scoring a touchdown on the following possession.
They recovered an on-side kick with 3:30 remaining. Arizona’s defense held firm and BYU’s 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright with 2:07 left. Victory was finally in hand for Arizona.
Arizona receiver Mike Thomas caught the last play of the game for a three-yard pass. It was his career reception 259, good enough to become the all-time Pac-10 leader in receiving.
Tuitama earned the MVP trophy after completing 24 of 35 passes for 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The game was the last in a Wildcat uniform for high-profile tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the 2009 season with a back injury. He entered the NFL draft in 2010 despite having two years of eligibility remaining at Arizona.
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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.