Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is 25 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 33, California Golden Bears 33
DATE: Oct. 1, 1983
SITE: Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, Calif., 40,018 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: 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.
California struck back in the next 1:34 with two touchdowns after Hunley’s interception and momentum became an ally for the Golden Bears.
Cal’s Gale Gilbert threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to tight end David Lewis and Dwight Garner returned a punt for 67 yards to cut the lead to 26-17.
Arizona quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe than threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Brad Anderson. During this flurry of scoring in the last seven minutes of the third quarter, Arizona’s Vance Johnson had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown nullified by a penalty (see Dave Petruska’s reflection of that in this blog).
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.
“It was just a case of big plays,” Smith told reporters. “They changed the momentum. I’m not pleased with the defense.”
From the Press Box — Dave Petruska former Tucson Citizen beat reporter
“This was one of those games were the momentum changed so fast after UA got the big lead. But the Cats got screwed on a kickoff return for a TD by Vance Johnson that was called back because of an illegal block by Bill Redman. That TD would have changed the momentum back in UA’s favor. I watched the UA game films of that play and Redman’s block was textbook perfect, but it was on Cal’s kicker and the crowd went nuts when it happened and the flag was thrown. UA was on probation this year and all it was playing for was the No. 1 ranking. The tie dropped the Cats in the polls and they never recovered. UA coach Larry Smith wouldn’t admit it during the season, but after the season he said the tie with Cal had affected the team. “
The Arizona offense also struggled for the most part as the Wildcats settled for four Max Zendejas field goals, which tied a Pac-10 record. The Wildcats averaged 196 yards rushing entering the game but were limited to 86.
The tie against Cal seemingly deflated the Wildcats. They finished the season 7-3-1, losing three of their last four home games.
The roster that season featured 20 players who would later be active on NFL or Canadian Football League rosters. Johnson, Hunley, Randy Robbins and Mike Freeman would combine to play in 10 Super Bowls.
The three losses came by a total of 19 points. The defense rated first in the league against the rush (98 yards per game) and was second in the Pac-10 in total defense (299 yards per game). Tunnicliffe closed his career as the No. 4 passer in league history.
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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.