Arizona Football

No. 2 game in Arizona history: UA proves its worth with historical 1981 upset of No. 1 USC

Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is two days away. To go along with the countdown to kickoff, this site will publish the Top 50 games in Wildcat football history.

NO. 2

SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 13, No. 1 Southern Cal Trojans 10

DATE: October 10, 1981

SITE: Los Angeles Coliseum, 56,315 in attendance

WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Arizona coach Larry Smith placed his thumb and forefinger an inch apart while standing before his Wildcats in practice leading up to the Wildcats’ first game in school history against a No. 1-ranked team.

“There’s just that much difference between the No. 1 team and, say, the No. 56 team,” Smith told them.

Historically, the gap was as wide as the Grand Canyon between Arizona and USC when they faced each other in 1981.

Arizona Daily Star clipping of Arizona’s upset of No. 1 USC in Los Angeles in 1981.

The Wildcats, in only their fourth year in the Pac-10, traveled to Los Angeles to face No. 1 USC, a school it had never beaten in nine tries. The Trojans by that time had won nine national titles and eight Rose Bowls. The Wildcats, 24-point underdogs, lost 34-7 to USC in their previous trip to Los Angeles in 1979. Arizona was 0-7 there, with most of the games taking place in the 1920s.

The Trojans, featuring Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Allen and All-American defensive back Ronnie Lott, was on a 22-game unbeaten streak at the L.A. Coliseum going back to 1977. They were on a 37-3-2 stretch over a four-year period. Arizona did not win more than six games in a season in the same four-year period.

The Wildcats were 2-2, having played their first four games at home. USC was 4-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country with wins over Tennessee and Oklahoma at the Coliseum.

Despite all the odds against them, the Wildcats believed in their opportunity because of how the late Smith, who passed away in 2008, motivated them.

“I remember Coach Smith saying, ‘Sixty men together on the same page can’t lose,’” Julius Holt, a junior defensive tackle in 1981, told me.

Holt danced about and yelled loud enough for everyone to hear near the Arizona locker room after the upset: “We came to play! They came to sleep!”

Randy Robbins, a defensive back who played nine years in the NFL, told me that Arizona used its underdog role and inexperience in such contests to their benefit.

“Sixty men together can’t lose”

Julius Holt is shown in celebration on the front page of the Tucson Citizen after Arizona's upset win over No. 1 USC in 1981

Julius Holt is shown in celebration on the front page of the Tucson Citizen after Arizona’s upset win over No. 1 USC in 1981

JuliusHolt

From the Field — Julius Holt, former Arizona defensive tackle/linebacker

“I remember the team and I leaving the Bonaventure Hotel in L.A. for our game against USC and the Hell’s Angels were driving right next to our bus. The bus driver failed to signal and they were knocking on the side of our bus and we had to move over to the right.
They were pretty cool and helped us get through some difficult L.A. traffic. We knew if we could force USC to throw the ball we could win the game because they were better at running the ball than throwing the ball and we had speed on defense. As a team, we were so focused and prepared to play to win. The game plan on offense and defense was a simple and straight forward play assignment football, stay together and play together. As far as our defense goes, we felt their linemen were too slow to block us if they had to pass. We ran stunts against the run because we were quicker and knew we had to prepare for Marcus Allen cutback ability so we always try stay home on the backside. He had one good run all day but that was not good enough and the rest was history. The best quote (by head coach Larry Smith) was ‘Sixty men together can’t lose’.”

“I remember everyone — media, etc. — saying for the week was how invincible USC was compared to everyone they had played so far to date,” Robbins said. “As players, we were such a young group as a whole. We were kind of oblivious as to what the stakes were about this game.

“We felt that no one was giving us a chance in this game. However, as players we were not afraid or not intimidated by USC. They were going to get our best effort as players. (That’s) what we decided as a team.”

Arizona’s will was tested early as the Trojans took a 10-0 lead after less than eight minutes. Allen broke off a student-body-right play for 74 yards for the first score and Steve Jordan kicked a 21-yard field goal.

“We were a bit shaken (after Allen’s touchdown run),” Mark Walczak, a tight end with the Wildcats, told me. “But our defense got tough and and the offense made things happen.

“By half we knew we knew that we could beat them if we played hard and mistake-free and we did.”

Two Brett Weber field goals, one a 47-yarder 30 seconds before halftime and a 25-yarder in the third quarter, cut the lead to 10-6. On Arizona’s last offensive play of the third quarter, sophomore quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe, from nearby Burbank, Calif., hit freshman tailback Vance Johnson with a 13-yard touchdown pass that put the Wildcats ahead for good.

“John Robinson came into our locker room after the game to personally congratulate each player and coach. It was a very special experience.” Jeff Kiewel, Arizona junior offensive tackle in 1981

Jeff Kiewel was an Arizona offensive lineman who had a key block on a late possession by the Wildcats at No. 1 USC in 1981

Jeff Kiewel was an Arizona offensive lineman who had a key block on a late possession by the Wildcats at No. 1 USC in 1981

The Wildcats pulled off their most significant upset in the greatest game in school history thanks to Tunnicliffe’s 293 yards passing and a defense that yielded only 297 yards in total offense, 186 yards under the mighty Trojans’ average.

Allen ran for 211 yards in 26 carries and extended his NCAA record of consecutive 200-yard rushing games to five, but the other Trojans were nowhere to be found. The rest of the running backs gained only 26 yards and USC passed for only 60 yards. Arizona outgained USC 405-297 in total yards.

The Wildcats’ defense, led by College Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Hunley, Robbins and Holt, limited USC’s offense to only nine plays in the third period and 15 in the fourth. The Trojans crossed midfield only once in the second half. They fumbled on the first play after crossing the 50-yard line.

“Arizona deserved to win and they outplayed us in every phase of the game,” USC coach John Robinson was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times. “They also outcoached us. We played inconsistently and coached inconsistently. You have to give Arizona credit. They just kept coming at us.”

Robinson was so impressed he visited Smith and the Wildcats in their locker room after the game to congratulate them.

Steve Grimley, who covered the game for the Orange County (Calif.) Register, delivered a paragraph in his report that deserves repeating:

The difference was Tunnicliffe, who defied the rules of football logic and played ball-control offense with the forward pass. Throwing in the shadow of a huge, purple stage erected for this weekend’s Rolling Stones concerts in the Coliseum, he definitely had the Trojan secondary under his thumb.

Dave Petruska

Dave Petruska

From the Press Box — Dave Petruska, former Tucson Citizen beat reporter

“No one expected UA to win this game, and how the Cats did it was amazing. Arizona ran 80 plays to 48 for USC, outgained the Trojans on offense 405 yards to 297 and held the ball 15 minutes longer. And the way UA clinched the game showed how well the Cats played as a team. The defense forced a punt – USC opted not to go for a first down with a fourth-and-4, and UA took over on its 30 with 2:16 left. USC never saw the ball again. The Wildcats got a 19-yard run by Brian Holland on a crucial third-and-7 for the first down that clinched the game. Holland told me the hole he ran through “was bigger than the locker room.” He got key blocks from fullback Chris Brewer (on all-America linebacker Chip Banks), center Glenn McCormick, guard Gerald Roper, tackle Jeff Kiewel and wide receiver Kevin Ward to get the first down. Holland nearly broke free for a touchdown. The funniest moments? The players said they kept finding ring tops from cans and marijuana butts on the field. A Rolling Stones concert had been held the night before at the Los Angeles Coliseum.”

Grimley also offered a quote to remember from Arizona offensive lineman Frank Kalil:

Kalil, the 245-pound Wildcat left guard out of Servite High, agreed that the Trojans seemed unprepared for a passing attack. “‘All their linemen try to do is overpower you. They think that’s all they have to do,” he said. “Well, not everyone is Oregon State. They’re not big enough just to run over everyone. Hey, I can press 500 pounds. You can’t just run over me.”

Arizona Republic clipping of Arizona’s win over Marcus Allen and top-ranked USC in 1981.

Tunnicliffe was also instrumental coming off the bench in Arizona’s upset over No. 2 UCLA the previous season in Tucson when it appeared the Bruins would become the No. 1 team in the nation because of top-ranked Alabama’s loss earlier that day.

“Tunnicliffe just seemed to get hot,” Jay Dobyns, a freshman receiver with the Cats in 1981, told me about the quarterback’s performance against USC. “Brad Anderson, Mark Keel and Kevin Ward were making big catches and you could feel it. Tom always played great against the L.A. schools.”

Tunnicliffe, nicknamed Tom “Terrific” during his UA days from 1980-1983, ranks third at Arizona in career passing yards with 7,618. He was atop that list until Willie Tuitama passed for 9,211 between 2005-2008. Nick Foles (2009-2011) now holds the record with 10,011.

Tom Tunnicliffe, pictured here on the cover of a 1981 program, embodied the characteristics of the Arizona football program, fighting for respectability

USC’s vaunted defense that included Lott, cornerback Joey Browner and linebackers Chip Banks and Jack Del Rio only sacked Tunnicliffe once. Smith pointed out to the media after the game the sack occurred only because Arizona had just 10 players on the field.

“Someone is bound to be open if the quarterback has all day to pick out his receivers,” Browner is quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times.

Tunnicliffe, who played at 6-foot and 200 pounds, was not drafted and signed by an NFL team because of his height, but his resolve stood tall in some of Arizona’s biggest victories against USC, UCLA, ASU and Notre Dame. He is as identifiable in Arizona’s most significant victories in school history as anybody. Max Zendejas and Chuck Cecil are right up there with him.

“The things I use the most are perseverance and optimism,” Tunnicliffe told The Los Angeles Times in a 1991 article. “As bad as things get, they can be turned around. If you have the discipline to do the fundamentals and stay your course, good things will happen.”

The Arizona football program is Tunnicliffe in microcosm. Long considered below the top rung of Pac-12 programs because of their inability to earn a Rose Bowl berth, the Wildcats continue to persevere and remain optimistic through all the changes in coaches, players and schemes.

Arizona’s win over USC in 1981 put the Wildcats on the regional map as the Wildcats turned the page from their WAC days. The upset enhanced the Wildcats’ image in southern California, impacting recruiting and the public perception of Arizona. The days in which Arizona was confused with Arizona State became fewer with such important victories under Smith.

“When you stand your ground, and go toe to toe with the best, and succeed it is always the time that a teams feels at its best,” Walczak said.


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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.

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