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Postseason drought baffles Wildcat stars of 1998 Holiday Bowl

It was the week before the 1998 Holiday Bowl, and Arizona coach Dick Tomey was riding a theme.

That “N” on the Nebraska helmet?

“He kept telling us the ‘N’ stood for ‘Not today,’ ” remembered Brandon Nash, a receiver/special teams player on the 1998 Wildcats who is now a local sportscaster.

“Every time we saw that helmet, he wanted us to think, ‘Not today, not today.’ You look back at that now, and it sounds so corny, but that has stuck with me forever and it was very motivating back then.”

It worked.

Dec. 30, 1998, was not Nebraska’s day.

It was Arizona’s.

The Wildcats won 23-20 in a thrilling Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Arizona scored two touchdowns in the final quarter, including a 1-yard plunge from Kelvin Eafon with 6:08 left.

On Nebraska’s next possession, freshman quarterback Eric Crouch – who would go on to win the 2001 Heisman Trophy – threw deep over the middle on third-and-11 from the UA 46.

Arizona’s All-American cornerback Chris McAlister made a leaping interception, and UA was able to secure the victory by running off all but the final 34 seconds.

That put the final touch on a 12-1 season – the school’s best-ever record – and the Wildcats finished fourth in both major polls.

“That game felt different than any game I played in at Arizona,” said quarterback Keith Smith, who now lives in southern California.

“It kind of felt like what I thought the Super Bowl would feel like. It was like the lights were brighter. It was different.

“It was definitely fun to play in. It was probably the most fun I had in a football game.”

The lights were a little brighter. At the time, it was ESPN’s most-watched bowl game ever. No Holiday Bowl since then has been as highly rated.

“To this day, anywhere I go, walking around here in California, they bring that game up,” Smith said. “They can tell me more about the game than I can.”

UA took a 9-0 lead on three field goals from Mark McDonald, but Nebraska led 13-9 at halftime, with its touchdown coming on a 45-yard pass to Shevin Wiggins.

The score stayed that way until the fourth quarter, when Smith hit Brad Brennan on a 15-yard touchdown pass.

“The first thing I think about in that game is Brad Brennan’s catch,” Smith said. “There was a lot of pressure at that point of the game.

“We kind of looked at each other, and he broke off his route into a skinny post. I knew I had to zip it in there, and I threw it as hard as I could.

“He split two defenders and was excited to come out of that thing alive.”

UA’s defense had dared Crouch to throw all game, devoting an extra linebacker to play across Nebraska’s interior offensive line for run support. UA held the option-based attack to a measly 87 rushing yards.

“Nebraska was always a team you wanted to play, wanted to beat,” Smith said.

“We were confident. We said, ‘We belong on the field with these guys. They should be excited to play us.’ ”

Arizona had five key players in that game who are still in the NFL – cornerback Chris McAlister, offensive lineman Edwin Mulitalo, receiver Dennis Northcutt, defensive end Joe Tafoya and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Several others played in the NFL, including first-round running back Trung Canidate, linebacker Marcus Bell, linebacker DaShon Polk, tight end Mike Lucky, offensive lineman Yusuf Scott, tight end/H-back Paul Shields and receiver Jeremy McDaniel.

Several others beyond that played professionally somewhere – such as quarterbacks Smith and Ortege Jenkins, Eafon and defensive lineman Daniel Greer – or made it to NFL camps.

No doubt, Arizona’s program was rolling. It had 17 returning starters for the 1999 season and was such a hot property that ABC picked the Cats to open at Penn State in the Pigskin Classic.

Alas . . .

“It would have been nice to build on that momentum and do better things after that,” said center Bruce Wiggins, who was a sophomore starter for the Holiday Bowl team.

“But we’ll always have ’98.”

The Penn State game was a 41-7 disaster, and the Wildcats faded in 1999 and 2000, missing out on the postseason and leading to Tomey’s departure.

The hiring of John Mackovic sank the program lower. Mike Stoops, entering his fifth season, hasn’t completed the rebuilding.

“If you had told me after the Holiday Bowl that I wouldn’t have gone to another bowl ever again, I would have told you, you were crazy,” said Nash, who completed his eligibility in 2001.

“And if you had told me Arizona wouldn’t go to a bowl (in the next nine seasons), I would have said, ‘jump off a bridge because that’s the dumbest thing.’

“I really can’t believe it’s been that long.”


1921 East-West Christmas

Centre (Ky.) 38, UA 0: Rain pummels field. The bad footing halts the Cats’ offense, with 0 first downs in first half. UA ends 7-2.



Drake 14, UA 13: Ed Wolgast runs for 133 yards, 8 more than Drake, but Arizona (6-5) has two fumbles and an interception.



Auburn 34, UA 10: UA gives up 24 points in a seven-minute span in the second half. Coach Darrell Mudra leaves after 8-3 season.



Pittsburgh 16, UA 10: David Liggins picks off Dan Marino twice, but it’s not enough. UA finishes 6-5-1 in Tony Mason’s last year.



UA 13, Georgia 13: Clutch kicker Max Zendejas misses 39-yard winning field goal try with 10 seconds left. UA ends 8-3-1.


Aloha Bowl

UA 30 North Carolina 21: Big hits lead to five fumbles. Alfred Jenkins is offensive MVP. Coach Larry Smith goes to USC after 9-3 mark.



UA 17, N.C. State 10: Scott Geyer scores on 85-yard interception return. Offense is held to 130 total yards, but UA ends 8-4.



Syracuse 28, UA 0: Loss stops 214-game scoring streak since 1971, second longest in NCAA history. UA ends 7-5.



Baylor 20, UA 15: Bears get 61- and 69- yard scoring plays. Heath Bray nearly catches game-winner at end for Cats (6-5-1).



UA 29, Miami 0: UA humbles ‘Canes for the bowl’s only shutout. Dick Tomey leads Cats to first 10-win season in UA’s 90-year history.



Utah 16, UA 13: The Cats lose despite allowing only 75 yards of total offense. Tedy Bruschi has three sacks as UA finishes 8-4.



UA 20, New Mexico 14: UA tailback Kelvin Eafon is the MVP, with 75 yards and two touchdowns. Cats win last four to finish 7-5.



UA 23, Nebraska 20: Trung Canidate runs for 101 yards. UA rallies from 13-9 halftime deficit to end 12-1 and fourth in the polls.

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