Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is nine days away. To go along with the countdown to kickoff, this site will publish the Top 50 games in Wildcat football history.
SCORE: No. 8 ASU Sun Devils 24, No. 12 Arizona Wildcats 21
DATE: Nov. 29, 1975
SITE: Sun Devil Stadium, 51,388 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: If only they had instant replay back in the 1970s, then we would know for sure if “The Catch” is really “The Catch.” That’s what ASU fans call John Jefferson’s diving touchdown reception in the back of the end zone in the 1975 thriller, which had the most implications for both teams than any Arizona-ASU game to date.
Hard to believe: There was no live television (cable and satellite TV were not around back then) of this showdown in Tempe despite the fact that ASU was 10-0 and ranked No. 8 in the nation while Arizona was 9-1 and ranked No. 12. A trip to the Fiesta Bowl for the teams, as the WAC champion, was on the line. The Tucson Daily Citizen reported that 8,000 viewed a closed-circuit telecast of the game in Tempe and at McKale Center.
Most of what we have of “The Catch” are inconclusive grainy photos of Jefferson outstretched with the ball in his hands before he hits the ground. Did he trap it? Does he cradle the ball in his hands, preventing it from grazing the ground?
With the Wildcats leading 14-3 in the first half, the Sun Devils drove to the Arizona 8-yard line. ASU quarterback Dennis Sproul dropped back, found Jefferson running a slant to the right. His pass sailed long in the end zone but Jefferson dived for the ball like a center fielder leaping Superman-style for a scorching fly ball. After some refs showed indecision, they ruled that Jefferson did not trap the ball and awarded the Sun Devils a touchdown.
ASU fans call Jefferson’s catch the greatest play in Sun Devil history. Arizona fans still want to believe they are in the middle of a nightmare and the replay official has yet to make a ruling.
The Sun Devils seized the momentum of the game with the touchdown reception, although they still trailed 14-10.
Sproul, a sophomore, engineered the scoring drive in quick fashion after Arizona senior quarterback Bruce Hill scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown run that put the UA ahead 14-3 with 2:08 left in the half. Sproul took the Sun Devils 74 yards in 1:38, culminating in Jefferson’s disputed catch.
The Citizen’s Steve Weston reported “The Catch” this way: “Jefferson dived for the ball in the end zone and lost it when he hit the ground. Field judge Doug Reeves ruled it a TD catch, though other officials at first spotted the ball back on the original line of scrimmage, UA’s eight-yard line.”
Arizona coach Jim Young is quoted by Weston as saying he could not tell if Jefferson caught the ball.
“Scoring when they did like that right before the half took something out of us,” Young told Weston. “Was it a good catch? I had no view at all. I couldn’t tell. I assumed it was good.”
ASU coach Frank Kush told reporters that he also could not see the catch Jefferson made. He admitted that such a play can give a team “added incentive.”
Sports Illustrated in 1976 described “The Catch” this way: “The highlights film shows it twice — the sophomore flat-out in the air above the end zone, his body parallel to the ground, the ball miraculously stuck in his hands. All year, projectionists throughout cactus-and-coyote country — except perhaps in Tucson — have been stopping the film, reversing and going ahead again, as fans relive the moment.”
Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen wrote in 1992: “Although some of Larry Smith’s monumental victories over Arizona State soothed much of the pain of Arizona’s unforgettable 24-21 loss to the Sun Devils in 1975, that defeat remains as the one lingering disappointment of Jim Young’s head coaching duty at the UA from 1974-77.”
A Hill fumble during the UA’s first possession of the second half resulted in another Sproul-to-Jefferson touchdown connection, giving ASU a 17-14 lead. The Wildcats retook the lead, 21-17, after Hill hit junior Dave Randolph with a screen pass that covered 53 yards for a touchdown with 1:15 left in the third quarter.
Sproul defeated the UA defense once more, driving the Sun Devils 80 yards in 13 plays, diving over himself from the one with 3:57 left to play. Arizona amazingly had four more possessions — not downs … possessions — in the last four minutes but could not score. ASU survived and advanced to the Fiesta Bowl, in which it defeated Nebraska 17-14 to finish 12-0 overall and No. 2 in the rankings. Arizona stayed home despite its impressive 9-2 season.
“I think Arizona should go to a bowl game somewhere,” Kush is quoted as saying by Weston. “They’re the best team we’ve played all season. I know their kids are terribly disappointed, but they ought to be proud of the way they played.”
Overlooked, because of Jefferson’s controversial catch, was a 77-yard touchdown reception by Arizona receiver Scott Piper in the first quarter that was questionably called back by the refs. Piper was ruled to have lined up off sides.
Arizona posted a school-record plus-2.27 turnover margin a game in 1975. The Wildcats turned the ball over only nine times all season, compared to 34 by opponents. The UA had two of those turnovers against ASU, an interception and fumble by Hill that led to an ASU touchdown and prevented the Wildcats from driving late in the game.
“I’ll look back on this game, not on the others,” Hill was quoted as saying by the Citizen in a somber locker room, reflecting on Arizona’s 9-2 season. “This was the season. We shouldn’t have won the others if we weren’t going to win this one.”
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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.