Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is 30 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 28, No. 12 ASU Sun Devils 16
DATE: Nov. 28, 1997
SITE: Sun Devil Stadium, 73,682 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Talk about a reversal of fortunes — ASU was playing at home with a five-game winning streak, ranked No. 12 in the nation with an eye on a Fiesta Bowl bid with a victory over an Arizona team on a nine-game road losing streak.
The Cats were 5-5 overall, including 1-4 against ranked teams. The Wildcats dominated from the start, however, in what turned out to be one victory in the middle of a 16-1 run from 1997 to 1998 for the Wildcats — the best stretch in the program’s history. The Sun Devils regressed to a 5-6 record the following year.
Ortege Jenkins, a redshirt freshman who started the 1997 season as a wide receiver, threw three first-half touchdown passes and linebacker Chester Burnett made two key plays in the fourth quarter in Arizona’s upset victory at Sun Devil Stadium.
Arizona, which beat New Mexico in the Copper Bowl to end the season, stunned the Tempe crowd by taking a 21-0 lead.
Jenkins threw for 182 of his 194 yards in the first half, leading the Wildcats to a 28-7 advantage. Keith Smith also tossed a touchdown pass in the first half.
“In the first half, we were just rolling,” Jenkins told reporters. “I had great protection. Any quarterback who has five or six seconds to throw the ball can make completions.”
J.R. Redmond’s eight-yard TD run cut the deficit to 28-16 with 11:19 to play. The Wildcats were forced to punt after going three-and-out on their next possession, but Arizona State’s Steve Campbell was picked off by Burnett with 7:24 remaining and returned it to the Sun Devils 43-yard line. Arizona again went nowhere on offense and had its punt blocked. It appeared that Arizona State was going to recover, but the ball squirted free and Burnett scooped it up and rumbled to the ASU 30 for a first down with 4:56 to go.
“I had been asking for years for them to give me a fake punt,” Burnett told reporters. “It was just being at the right place at the right time. I get no cigar for that one.”
Campbell, who entered in the second quarter in place of the injured Ryan Kealy, was picked off by safety David Fipp in the final minute.
“The key to the game was the way the guys played and hung together,” Arizona coach Dick Tomey said to reporters. “They wouldn’t be denied. There are a lot of heroes and it just meant a lot to us.”
The Sun Devils missed a chance for a share of the Pac-10 title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. They played Iowa in the Sun Bowl instead.
Scoring came in bunches in the first half, including Jenkins connecting with Dennis Northcutt on a 40-yard strike, building a 21-point cushion.
Campbell hit Ricky Boyer on a 17-yard fade for a touchdown with 2:24 left to cut the ASU deficit to 21-7. On the next play from scrimmage, Arizona’s Trung Canidate took the handoff and fumbled and Sun Devils safety Damien Richardson recovered at the Wildcats 31-yard line with 2:10 to go before halftime. On the next play, Mike Martin fumbled it right back to the Wildcats and linebacker Marcus Bell took it all the way to the Arizona State 30.
“We had a lot of trick stuff that we used. It was crazy. It feels so rewarding to win up here, especially after last year (when ASU won 56-14 in Tucson in 1996). This is the biggest win of my life so far and hopefully we can go home for a bowl game and keep this momentum. We don’t care about what bowl they (ASU) go to.It was all about beating ASU, that was our bowl game.”
— Arizona quarterback Keith Smith after the Wildcats beat ASU in 1997
Shortly after that, an ASU defensive back jumped three yards into the Arizona backfield for what was an apparent offside penalty. The whistle was not blown, and even though Arizona players moved as well, the officials let the play go. While both the defensive and offensive lines thought the play was dead, Wildcats wideout Brad Brennan broke for the end zone. He got behind the defense and Jenkins lofted a pass into his arms for the easy score with 1:05 remaining. The flag thrown was called on Arizona State so the play stood, giving Arizona a 28-7 cushion at the half (at the 6:35 mark of the accompanying YouTube video).
“I was telling them to go, go. That was a gift,” Jenkins told reporters of the touchdown. “As long as the whistle doesn’t blow, we keep playing. I threw it to him, he was wide open. I’ll take the free stuff any time.”
Tomey, known for his trickery, used one and the Wildcats scored a touchdown as a result. Following an Arizona State fumble, Smith tossed a 45-yard pass to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna to get to the ASU 10. Smith lined up at tailback and Jenkins went in motion. The shotgun snap went to Smith and he fired an eight-yard TD pass to Paul Shields for a 14-0 edge with 4:01 to go in the first period.
“We had a lot of trick stuff that we used. It was crazy. It feels so rewarding to win up here, especially after last year,” said Smith, who was part of Arizona’s 56-14 loss to Rose Bowl-bound ASU in Tucson the previous year.
“This is the biggest win of my life so far and hopefully we can go home for a bowl game and keep this momentum. We don’t care about what bowl they (ASU) go to. It was all about beating ASU. That was our bowl game.”
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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.