Only a month now, 31 days, until the Arizona Wildcats kick off their 2018 campaign under new coach Kevin Sumlin. The season begins when Arizona hosts BYU on Sept. 1 at Arizona Stadium.
To get ready for the upcoming season, All Sports Tucson offers another countdown, which will include memories from former Wildcats, history notes and a look ahead to the season. Think of it as a way to keep Arizona football on the mind in the summer months leading up to fall camp in early August and then kickoff against the Cougars marking the start of the Sumlin Era.
To catch up on the countdown click on this: Arizona Wildcats 2018 countdown to kickoff.
1993 vs. 1998
The season marks some substantial anniversaries. It is the 40th anniversary since the Wildcats joined the Pac-12 (went from the Pac-8 to the Pac-10 then) and also the 20th anniversary of the 1998 team with the best record in school history, 12-1, and the 25th anniversary of the 1993 team that went 10-2 with a win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
A debate among Arizona followers has developed in recent years over which team was better — the 1993 team that brought the program the famed Desert Swarm defense (one of the top units in the history of college football) or the 1998 team that finished No. 4 in the nation and came basically a half away against UCLA from going unbeaten.
My colleague Anthony Gimino wrote about this debate for the Tucson Citizen in 2013.
Both teams were coached by Dick Tomey, the winningest coach in Arizona history (95-64-4 from 1987 to 2000).
We started the debate when it was 50 days to kickoff. All of the reader polls can be accessed here (you still have time to vote):
Mythical game Part III
The anticipated opening kickoff return for Chris McAlister of the 1998 team was for naught as Steve McLaughlin’s strong right leg booted the ball deep into the end zone (as the Lou Groza Award winner usually did), forcing McAlister (the Mosi Tatupu Award winner for the top special team return specialist) to make a fair catch.
The 1993 defense, the Desert Swarm unit that is one of the best in college football history, took the field amid a loud roar that was loud and long enough that you would expect the players to take off their helmets and bow to the crowd.
Tedy Bruschi, Rob Waldrop, Sean Harris, Tony Bouie, Brandon Sanders, and Co., were stacked against an Arizona offense that featured the two-headed monster at quarterback (Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins), an experienced and efficient offensive line (including Pac-10 Morris Trophy winner Yusuf Scott at right guard and future NFL player Edwin Mulitalo at left tackle), explosive running back Trung Canidate and dangerous receiver in Dennis Northcutt.
The Desert Swarm that allowed only 30.1 yards rushing a game — not a misprint — took their place in the Double Eagle Flex staring down the potent 1998 offense that averaged 444.9 yards a game.
The 1998 team lined up with Smith under center, Bruce Wiggins snapped him the ball, he faked the handoff on a play-action, sprinted to his right and hit the small window to tight end Mike Lucky, who separated only briefly from Brant Boyer. The play was only for six yards but it was a small victory in the many battles that will take place between the teams. It showed that the 1998 offense had the speed and the crafty leadership of Smith (and Jenkins when he was at quarterback) to keep the 1993 defense on its toes at least for a bit.
The Desert Swarm would stuff Canidate behind the line on the next play and a quick pass out of the backfield to Kelvin Eafon was too low and just like that the 1998 team was forced to punt.
The ever-dangerous Chuck Levy ran on the field to return the punt from 1998’s Ryan Springston, who earned honorable-mention All-Pac-10 honors averaging 41.7 yards per punt. The booming kick went 46 yards with Levy fielding it at his 30-yard line. He ran to his left, side-stepped a would-be tackler and found a lane toward the sideline but only for 13 yards before he was cut off and pushed out of bounds. The 1993 team took over in decent field position at its own 43-yard line.
Quarterback Dan White broke the huddle and surveyed the 1998 defense that included three of the most feared players ever to wear an Arizona uniform — sack specialist Joe Tafoya who started as a freshman in 1998, prolific tackler Marcus Bell at the inside linebacker position and lockdown defender McAlister at one of the cornerback spots.
White called for a surprise post pattern pass on first down to Terry Vaughn that went too long but Bouie, the free safety, was draped over him anyway. Next came a 4-yard run off tackle by Ontiwaun Carter and a delayed handoff to Levy that went only for a couple of more yards. Matt Peyton, a freshman in 1993, came on to punt and wisely booted the ball away from Northcutt. The ball went out of bounds at the 1998’s 27-yard line.
The teams each traded possessions again without either crossing the other’s 45-yard line before the first quarter came to an end with the 1993 team having possession of the ball, second down on its 37-yard line. The teams were feeling their way through, like two boxers in the opening rounds, deadlocked.
“The two defenses today have great character,” Keith Jackson said on the ABC broadcast. “The offenses are not distraught because of that. They know the battle ahead and they are plotting their next move.”
Tomorrow: A move is made.
A look back at No. 31
— The best to wear No. 31 linebacker Mark Arneson, a Palo Verde High School alum who became an All-American in 1971. He went on to play nine years in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a second-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 1972. Arneson had 21 unassisted tackles for Arizona when the Wildcats played at Michigan in the 1970 season opener (won by the Wolverines 20-9).
Wearing No. 31 now
Junior safety Tristan Cooper is No. 31 now for the Wildcats. He has played in 24 games in his career, most notably standing out as a true freshman in 2016 when he had 35 tackles, two for loss. He figures to start at Arizona’s spur position, a hybrid linebacker/safety spot.
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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.