We have reached 29 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 IV
The teams came out of the locker rooms after halftime charged, especially by the electricity of the crowd. The low-scoring affair, with the 1998 team leading 7-6, had plenty of drama especially from a defensive perspective. The 1993 team arguably had the better defense with the Desert Swarm unit and the 1998 offense had what seemed to be more firepower at the skill positions with Trung Canidate and Dennis Northcutt and more mobile quarterbacks Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins. The 1998 defense, with future NFL players Joe Tafoya, Marcus Bell and Chris McAlister, also stood firm.
Similar to how McAlister sparked the 1998 team with a long kickoff return, that resulted in the game’s only touchdown to that point, Chuck Levy lifted the 1993 team with a 35-yard return at the start of the second half, giving his team the ball at its 37-yard line.
After Billy Johnson ran for a short gain off right tackle, Dan White connected on a slant to Richard Dice, who broke a tackle and ran loose for 37 yards to the 1998’s 23-yard line. On third-and-3, White connected on a play-action pass to Troy Dickey over the middle to the 5-yard line. Three straight running plays took the ball to one foot from the end zone.
The decision to go for the touchdown, rather than have Steve McLaughlin try another field goal, came down to defensive line coach Rich Ellerson, the architect of the Double Flex Eagle defense that helped create Desert Swarm. Ellerson, a Salpointe grad, is the coach of the 1993 team in this game. The 1998 coach is former offensive coordinator Dino Babers, who is now the head coach at Syracuse.
Ellerson decided to go for the touchdown and Johnson delivered, powering his way behind the right side of the line (guard Warner Smith and tackle Joe Smigiel) for the score. The extra point by McLaughlin put the 1993 team up 13-7 with 10:07 left in the third quarter.
The 1998 team responded on the next possession with Smith as quarterback. Canidate’s quickness and the blocking ability of the line, led by Yusuf Scott and Manu Savea on the right side, allowed the back to break free for a 42-yard gain on a screen pass from Smith to the 1993’s 30-yard line. Two plays later, Smith was flushed out of the pocket and scrambled for an 11-yard gain to the 16. Kelvin Eafon powered ahead for a 1-yard gain on third down to give his team a first down at the 6.
Smith lofted a perfect pass to the corner of the end zone, allowing Jeremy McDaniel to haul it in for a touchdown over cornerback Claudius Wright. The score with 6:35 left in the quarter was capped by Mark McDonald’s extra point and the 1998 team regained the lead 14-13. Suddenly, the offenses became the story.
The defenses rose in the next couple of possessions, however, heading into the fourth quarter. The tension mounted with every second. Players of each team put four fingers in the air as they moved to the opposite side of the field. Arizona Stadium was as loud as ever.
“The final chapter is about to be scripted into the annals of the University of Arizona football program — which team can claim it is the best?” Keith Jackson said on the ABC broadcast. “Whoa Nellie … Hold the phone folks. This is why they play the game.” …
Tomorrow: It comes down to this …
A look back at No. 29
— The best to wear No. 29 is historically one of the most important players for the program — running back Fred Batiste, who was the first black football letterman in 1949. Batiste, who starred at Tucson High School, was also a track and field standout. He was part of an accomplished family of athletes in Tucson at that time. Being the first black player, he encountered difficulties, such as not being allowed to participate when Arizona played games in Texas because of a “negro ban.”
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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.