Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is five days away. To go along with the countdown to kickoff, this site will publish the Top 50 games in Wildcat football history.
SCORE: No. 14 Arizona Wildcats 34, No. 4 ASU Sun Devils 17
DATE: Nov. 22, 1986
SITE: Arizona Stadium, 58,267 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: “You Can’t Smell Roses With A Broken Nose”
An Arizona fan lofted that sign high in Arizona Stadium as the Wildcats were delivering a knockout blow of historical proportions.
The punch that put an exclamation point on the victory was Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard interception for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
The play, officially listed at 100 yards, is right up there as the greatest play in the history of the program with Ortege Jenkins’ “Leap by the Lake” at Washington in 1998.
The Sun Devils were 9-0-1 entering the game, already clinching a spot in their first Rose Bowl, and were challenging for a national championship. The Wildcats (7-2) had not beaten their arch-rivals this convincingly since 1964 when Jim LaRue’s team pounded Frank Kush’s 8-1 team 30-6 in Tucson.
From the Press Box — Corky Simpson, former Tucson Citizen sports columnist
“It’s almost impossible to believe, even with the perspective of 28 years, but two of the greatest plays in Arizona football history happened in the same game. Same decade? Sure, maybe. Same season? Not likely. Same game? Getouttahere. But there they are, on the record and in the hearts of Wildcat fans who remember Nov. 22, 1986. The day Arizona upset No. 4 ranked, Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State, two Wildcat defensive backs were the biggest heroes. In the third quarter, James DeBow stopped ASU running back Channing Williams at the goal line. Arizona led at the time, 21-10. DeBow made the initial contact, a crushing tackle of Williams, 35 pounds heavier, and then was quickly joined by enough teammates to keep the hard-charging Sun Devil runner out of the end zone. Then, in the fourth quarter, came that singular, never-to-be-forgotten moment in Wildcat history: Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard return of a Jeff Van Raaphorst pass, the finishing touch in the stunning upset. Van Raaphorst, scrambling a mere 10 yards from the goal line, spotted Aaron Cox in the end zone and pulled the trigger. But Cecil stepped in front of the Sun Devil receiver for the interception, and took off down the right sideline. Cox gave a spirited chase and was the last ASU player with a chance to catch Cecil. He couldn’t. Arizona won 34-17, to the delight of 58,267 at Arizona Stadium. The Sun Devils went on to beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and finished 10-1-1 under Coach John Cooper. The Wildcats (9-3) beat North Carolina in the Aloha Bowl, the final game for the late Larry Smith as Arizona’s coach. Larry left Tucson to coach Southern Cal and later, Missouri. Cooper would move on to Ohio State.”
The victory was the fifth straight by the Wildcats over their archrival during “The Streak” and earned them a berth in the Aloha Bowl against North Carolina, in which they won to notch their first bowl victory in school history.
The Sun Devils failed to notch their first undefeated regular season since 1975, when they went 11-0.
An over-capacity crowd of 58,267 — the second-largest ever at Arizona Stadium at the time — saw the Wildcats convert four ASU turnovers into 24 points, highlighted by Cecil’s return. His interception of a Jeff Van Raaphorst pass tied an NCAA record at 100 yards although he caught it six yards deep in the end zone. Under NCAA rules, interceptions inside the end zone are measured from the goal line.
“I just ran,” Cecil told the Tucson Citizen years later. “I still, to this day, don’t know why I ran it out.”
Lost through the years over the hyperbole of Cecil’s interception is the pass rush on Van Raaphorst, including that of tackle George Hinkle from the left side and nose guard Jim Birmingham up the middle. Hinkle and Birmingham put pressure on the ASU quarterback to hurry his throw toward Aaron Cox into coverage.
From the Press Box — Dave Petruska, former Tucson Citizen beat reporter
“The 1986 game was amazing. The Cats beat a terrific team and Chuck Cecil’s interception return seemed foolish initially when seen from the press box. Chuck saw the alley he could run through and turned on a speed I had never seen from him. He joked once about someone telling him he went 120 yards on the return. The other huge defensive play was by James DeBow. ASU was trailing 21-10 in the third quarter, went for it on fourth-and-inches at the goal line. Running back Channing Williams bounced to the outside, but DeBow, who was probably giving up 40 pounds to Williams, stood him up, kept his legs driving and held Williams until help could come to bring them down. People forget that DeBow had been a running back before switching to be a DB.”
It was one of six snaps Arizona State took inside the Wildcats 5 but came away empty-handed every time. ASU also lost the ball once inside the 5 on a fumble — that was caused by Cecil in the first quarter — and was stopped on three plays from the 3 another time.
After Arizona took a 21-10 lead on the opening possession of the third quarter, the Sun Devils drove as far as the Wildcats 3. Three carries by Channing Williams,however, only got Arizona State to the 1.
Kent Bostrom then kicked an 18-yard field goal, but the Wildcats were flagged for too many men on the field. ASU coach John Cooper elected to take the points off the board and went for the touchdown. The move by Cooper, winless in three games against Arizona as ASU’s coach, backfired because of an other highlight defensive play, this one by linebacker James DeBow.
On fourth-and-inches, Williams was stopped just short of the goal line by DeBow, who held up Williams’ penetration long enough for his teammates to join to prevent the touchdown. DeBow weighed 195 pounds compared to Williams at 216.
“It`s sweet to win five straight (over ASU),” DeBow, who also had an interception in the game, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “I think we have a psychological edge on them.”
Cooper told the AP: “We didn`t score when we had the opportunity and the U of A played a great game.”
The Wildcats were also led by senior running back David Adams, who gained 91 yards on 18 carries. Arizona quarterback Alfred Jenkins completed 11 of 17 passes for 165 yards and one touchdown. Van Raaphorst completed 38 of 55 passes on the day for 437 yards and two touchdowns, but was also intercepted three times.
“I said before the game I felt we were ready to bust loose and play our best game of the season and I think we did,” Arizona coach Larry Smith was quoted as saying by the AP. “The beautiful thing about it is that it was in front of the whole country.
“We beat the No. 4 team in the country and the Pac-10 champion. That’s a lot to be proud of.”
Arizona started strong, thanks to the efforts of Cecil and DeBow, and that provided the confidence and momentum for the Wildcats to knock off the previously unbeaten Sun Devils.
After Hinkle recovered a fumble caused by Cecil at the Arizona three-yard line, the Wildcats drove 97 yards in six plays, with Adams scoring on an 18-yard swing pass from Jenkins with 7:14 remaining in the first quarter. Art Greathouse, a freshman tailback from Phoenix, bulled over from five yards out 1:29 into the second quarter to make it 14-0. The 11-play, 73-yard drive was set up by DeBow’s interception at the Arizona 29-yard line.
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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.