Arizona’s season opener against NAU at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 2 is 48 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 27, UCLA Bruins 24
DATE: Nov. 12, 1983
SITE: Arizona Stadium, 42,640 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Arizona’s dream start of 1983 — 4-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation — turned into a nightmare by the time red-hot UCLA came to Tucson for the 10th game of that season.
The Wildcats, derailed in Week Five by a 33-33 tie at Cal, in which the Golden Bears rallied from a 26-3 deficit in the second half, lost three consecutive games before they played the Bruins in this classic.
Arizona fans became restless with head coach Larry Smith, although the Wildcats lost those three consecutive games by a total of only 19 points to Oregon, Stanford and No. 20 Washington. A crowd of only 42,640 showed up for the 10:30 a.m. kickoff, scheduled that early to accommodate the national television broadcast on CBS.
Those who attended were thankful they did not stay home because the finish was as good and improbable as any that has occurred at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats survived against a UCLA team quarterbacked by Rick Neuheisel that had won five straight games (after starting the season 0-3-1) and needed only a tie to punch its ticket to the Rose Bowl.
Arizona wide receiver Jay Dobyns caught an 8-yard pass from Tom Tunnicliffe for the decisive touchdown with 61 seconds left, and UCLA All-American place-kicker John Lee — impeccable from within 40 yards — missed wide right on a 37-yard field goal attempt and a chance to tie the score on the final play of the game. Lee continues to hold the NCAA record for made field goals within 40 yards — 54 out of 56 (96.4 percent).
Arizona’s 69-yard drive culminating on Tunnicliffe’s touchdown pass to Dobyns in the back of the end zone was one of the best drives engineered by a Wildcat quarterback in a pressure situation.
Tunnicliffe completed all four of his passes in the drive that started with 3:28 remaining. Among them, he connected with running back Chris Brewer for 11 yards on a third-and-7 situation and receiver Jon Horton for 12 yards on a third-and-2 play. He then completed a 32-yard reception to receiver Brad Anderson to the UCLA 3. After an offsides penalty that moved the ball back to the 8, Tunnicliffe connected with Dobyns for the go-ahead touchdown.
It was Dobyns’ first touchdown reception in 62 quarters or 15 1/2 games, since he caught a 57-yard scoring strike from Tunnicliffe in the previous season against Pacific.
“It was worth the wait,” Dobyns was quoted as saying in The Arizona Daily Star. “If I was going to get one, it might as well been then (against the Bruins).”
Neuheisel managed to drive UCLA in position for Lee’s attempted game-tying field goal, but the reliant Lee became unreliable for the Bruins at the right time for Arizona.
“I don’t know how he missed that field goal and I don’t care,” Smith told reporters after the game. “He missed it. Our guys deserved this win.”
Arizona place-kicker Max Zendejas outperformed Lee, his rival during their college careers, with field goals of 53 and 51 yards.
All-American linebacker Ricky Hunley made a significant tackle, grabbing a UCLA running back from behind for a touchdown-saving tackle in the fourth quarter after the Bruins had the ball first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Hunley made another stop on a running play and the Bruins were forced to try a 22-yard field goal, which Lee made to cut Arizona’s lead to 20-17.
UCLA took a 24-20 lead with 6:51 left in the game following a Tunnicliffe intercepted pass at the Arizona 27 yard-line. Tunnicliffe atoned for the play — in which the ball sprung loose from a blind-sided tackle — with his heroic drive with less than 4 minutes remaining.
The Bruins beat USC 27-17 the following week to advance to the Rose Bowl, in which they defeated Illinois 45-9.
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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.