Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is seven 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. 6 ASU Sun Devils 18
DATE: November 27, 1982
SITE: Arizona Stadium, 58,515 in attendance (record at the time)
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: ASU was so confident about winning this game that it showed up to Arizona Stadium with its maroon jerseys, which the Sun Devils wear in the comforts of Sun Devil Stadium.
Arizona warmed up in its blue jerseys but was forced to wear its road white jerseys because of what ASU reportedly called a communication error.
Given the circumstance of ASU’s dominance in the series at that point and the Wildcats’ struggles, the Sun Devils probably felt like they could do just about anything.
The Wildcats had no business winning this game or keeping it close. They were 5-4-1 overall, coming off one of the worst losses in the program’s history — a 14-7 loss the previous week at winless Oregon in which junior quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe was intercepted five times.
ASU (9-1) needed a victory to make its first Rose Bowl despite being in the Pac-10 only five years after leaving the Western Athletic Conference with Arizona. The Sun Devils were ranked No. 6 with the nation’s top-rated defense, anchored by menacing linebacker Vernon Maxwell.
From the Press Box — Dave Petruska, former Tucson Citizen beat reporter
“It was big play after big play this day for the Cats against a great defense with Tom Tunnicliffe throwing touchdown passes of 92 yards to Brian Holland and 65 yards to Brad Anderson. Both catches were sensational. Holland, a running back, caught his pass over the middle of the field while in full stride. Most of the pass routes he ran were flares or screens, but this was a different route and it surprised the Sun Devils. Anderson leaped and caught a ball that was behind him, yet he was able to gather himself and outrace the secondary to the end zone. And the defense, I believe, had a couple of safeties and forced several other turnovers.”
ASU was also on a 15-2 run against Arizona. In the Sun Devils’ previous game in Tucson in 1980, coach Larry Smith’s first year, they routed the Wildcats 44-7 on a blistery cold night. That was the only game Arizona All-American linebacker Ricky Hunley, out because of a broken thumb, missed in his illustrious UA career.
“It was bad. It was really bad,” Hunley told John Moredich of the Tucson Citizen in a 2007 article. “They rubbed it in. They were beating us down. My picture was on the program, and I didn’t play. It hurt.”
Longtime Tucson Citizen sports columnist Corky Simpson recalled in an obituary written about Smith, after his passing in 2008, that Smith made a vow after that embarrassing 44-7 loss to the Sun Devils.
“He said, ‘They’re not going to beat us again,'” Simpson told ESPN.
The Sun Devils won the following season in Tempe but never beat Arizona again in five games afterward with Smith coaching the Wildcats, starting with this 28-18 upset in front of a record crowd of 58,515 at Arizona Stadium. Smith’s teams prevented ASU from smelling the roses in this game and in 1985 at Sun Devil Stadium behind the kicking of Max Zendejas, who also converted a game-winner in 1983 at ASU.
In Smith’s last win over ASU in 1986, the Wildcats routed the Rose Bowl-bound Sun Devils 34-17 at Arizona Stadium.
Smith told The Arizona Daily Star’s Greg Hansen in a 1996 column that the 1982 victory over ASU — which started “The Streak” of nine consecutive games without a loss to the Sun Devils — was his most important win as coach of the Wildcats.
“People always asked me what my greatest victory was, and after we beat Notre Dame (in ’82) I had a game ball painted with `The Greatest Win’ put on the side,” Smith told Hansen. “That was the most prestigious win we had at Arizona, but the most important win was that ’82 game against Arizona State.
“That turned the tide within the state, something that had been a negative factor in Arizona football for 20 or 30 years. And it wasn’t just a one-game thing. We were able to maintain our edge from that game and keep it. In terms of how valuable a game was, that was the one. I can still see old Brian Holland running down the field.”
With the game scoreless early in the second quarter, Holland, a junior tailback, and Tunnicliffe hooked up in one of the most memorable pass receptions in the program’s history.
Arizona faced a third-and-8 at its own 8 against ASU’s blitzing defense. UA offensive coordinator Steve Axman called for a quick drop by Tunnicliffe, with Holland going against man coverage against linebacker Mark Hicks. Tunnicliffe successfully read a safety blitz, released the ball before getting hit by two defenders, and hit Holland on stride over the middle at the 25.
Holland ran untouched to the endzone and the Wildcats led 7-0. The 92-yard touchdown pass tied the Arizona record, set in 1972 when Bill Demory connected with Charlie McKee in a 1972 game against BYU. Tunnicliffe also became the school’s career passing leader in the game. He increased his career passing yards to 5,144.
“All the things we planned worked,” Tunnicliffe is quoted as saying by Hansen. “Quick reads, quick throws. … There was no part of their defense I couldn’t figure out. I mean, I wasn’t sacked, was I?”
Smith was concerned about how those plans would work against ASU. In the week leading up to the game, Smith was discouraged by how Arizona practiced. Moreover, ASU was coming off a bye and had two weeks to prepare for the Wildcats.
“I thought we had an average week of practice, but we had a deep-seat of emotion and that was the difference,” Smith was quoted as saying by the UPI after the game. “Our whole attack was to run right at them and slow down their defense … then mix in a high percentage pass or two.”
By the middle of the third quarter Arizona used that strategy — and shut down ASU defensively — to build a 26-0 lead against the stunned Sun Devils.
Arizona scored the first of two safeties 15 seconds into the third quarter as running back Darryl Clack was pulled down in the end zone by nose guard Joe Drake. The sizable and formidable Drake, who played at 6-2 and 300 pounds, altered the path of running back Dwaine Wright in the fourth quarter, allowing linebacker Glenn Perkins to close in and get Arizona’s second safety of the game.
Drake, who passed away from a heart attack at 31 in 1994, had another significant tackle against ASU the following season in Tempe, stopping ASU quarterback Todd Hons one yard from the goal-line on a two-point conversion try. The play kept ASU’s lead at 15-14 and provided the opportunity for Zendejas to convert his 45-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
In the 1982 game, Tunnicliffe frustrated ASU’s blitzing defense again and exposed its man coverage in the secondary with a 65-yard touchdown pass to Brad Anderson, who made a leaping, juggling catch before racing into the end zone. The Wildcats scored again three minutes later on a 1-yard run by Holland after the Wildcats recovered a fumble at the ASU 29.
The Sun Devils rallied to close the gap to 28-18 on two touchdown runs by Clack. The freshman tailback scored on runs of 3 yards and 1 yard and ASU added a field goal and a 2-point conversion, but Arizona’s lead — and its will to win — was too large to overcome.
“The U of A kicked our tails pretty good,” ASU coach Darryl Rogers was quoted as saying by the UPI after the game. “From the first half on, they did pretty much what they had to do. We did not pass protect. We did not run protect. The U of A just flat out kicked our tail and whipped us on the lines.”
ASU’s loss paved the way for UCLA to play in the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Arizona stayed home but it cherished its third win against ASU in 18 seasons. The Wildcats did not realize it at the time but the victory also started a nine-year unbeaten run against ASU in which Arizona re-established itself in the series. The Frank Kush dominance in the series became a distant memory.
“You never forget the ASU games, never,” Hunley told Moredich in the 2007 interview. “Once we got that first one, it was big. That gives you a chance. You have to get the first 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.