Arizona Wildcats, just like in 1992, have chance for life-changing victoryby Anthony Gimino on Nov. 26, 2010, under Sports
Arizona Wildcats quarterback George Malauulu couldn’t sleep. It was sometime in the early morning, the clock ticking toward the biggest game of his life.
It was Nov. 7, 1992, hours away from a game against No. 1 Washington. The Huskies had won 22 games in a row. They had humiliated Arizona 54-0 a year earlier.
But these Cats were different. They had come so far, so fast. From a 1-1-1 start that included a 14-14 tie at woeful Oregon State, to a near-upset at No. 1 Miami, to an improbable four-game winning streak — including victories over 11th-ranked UCLA and No. 8 Stanford — to this:
Another date with No. 1.
Malauulu sat up in his bed at the Plaza Hotel. He grabbed a pillow and tossed it toward his sleeping roommate, hitting Heath Bray in the face.
Into the darkness, Malauulu said, “Hey, bro, we’re going to win tomorrow.”
* * *
That day — that spectacular sun-filled afternoon at Arizona Stadium — was the second and the most recent time Arizona defeated a team ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“I said at the time, that until I had children, it was going to be the best day of my life,” Bray said of the 16-3 victory. “That has proven to be a fact.”
Arizona plays another No. 1 team Friday night, taking on Oregon in Autzen Stadium.
This current group of Cats has played in plenty of big games. Won a couple of them, too. But this is different. Playing No. 1 is historical. Beating No. 1 is life-changing.
As Bray’s voice rises, it’s as if he would like to take the message to each and every Wildcat in the locker room.
“One thing these kids should really understand: I’m 41 years old and the greatest success I’ve had in my life is when we beat Washington in 1992,” said Bray, now a financial consultant in the Phoenix area.
“It is a career-defining opportunity. It will be something you talk about the rest of your life. And even if you’re not a talker, you will think about it …
“The thing you remember the most when you’re older is the fact that you were put in front of a task that seemed impossible, and that you and the 10 guys around you and all the guys on the sideline, you did it together.
“I’m telling you now, it’s a really cool thing. It’s really cool.”
* * *
By the time Arizona played Washington in 1992, the defense recently had been named the Desert Swarm, although everything was still so new that sideline reporter Jake Arute referred to it as “Desert Storm” during the ABC broadcast.
In a span of several weeks, the Wildcats had transformed themselves from a rag-tag outfit with an embattled sixth-year coach, Dick Tomey, to one of the nation’s most fearsome teams.
It’s not revisionist history nearly 20 years later to say that Arizona knew it was going to win that day. Not could win. Would win. That team, at that time, had the vibe. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric, probably unmatched since.
“I had just been voted team captain that week,” recalled Bray, who was a backup quarterback that season after injuries forced him to give up defense, where he had played defensive back and linebacker.
“When the refs came into the locker room before the game to call for captains for the coin toss, it was like balloons fell from the ceiling. Everything was in the air — helmets, pads, cups. Everybody was screaming and yelling. It was like a party. You wouldn’t have expected that. …
“We walked out of the locker room that day, and there was not an empty seat in the house. You could tell from the coin flip, we were just going to win that game.”
The game was, as advertised, ruled by the defense. Well, that and special teams. If there was a game that personified Tomey’s “preserve your right to punt” philosophy, this was it. The game’s MVP was Arizona’s Josh Miller, who punted eight times for an average of 47.4 yards.
Other than that, the Desert Swarm of Rob Waldrop, Tedy Bruschi, Sean Harris, Jim Hoffman, Brant Boyer, Darryl Morrison, Keshon Johnson, Brandon Sanders, Tony Bouie and so much more just lined up with extreme confidence and hit the Huskies in the mouth over and over.
That was exactly what defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff had been preaching.
“I remember Coach Mac Duff was just talking about hitting them and hitting them hard, and letting them know we weren’t going anywhere,” Bouie said.
“It all starts on the first series of the game on offense or defense. You have to establish who you are going to be in that game. I would tell them the team this year that you have to punish them, punish them every time they have the ball.”
At one point, here is how Arizona stuffed Washington’s star running Napoleon Kaufman on consecutive runs — no gain, loss of 1 yard, another loss of 1 yard (with a fumble), yet another loss of 1 yard, and then a loss of 2 yards.
“We didn’t luckily win that ball game,” Bray said. “Let’s be very blunt about this: We beat their ass.”
* * *
Arizona’s task Friday night at Oregon is seemingly more impossible than what Arizona faced against Washington, if only because those 1992 Wildcats didn’t just expect to compete or keep it close that day. They expected to win. They believed.
Plus, this game is on the road. Arizona has lost two in a row. The Wildcats are nearly three-touchdown underdogs.
The game against Oregon more closely resembles Arizona’s game earlier in the 1992 season when it played at No. 1 Miami. The Hurricanes had won 46 consecutive games at home. They were four-touchdown favorites.
Arizona is about a 20-point underdog today, playing where the Ducks have won 15 in a row.
If there is a lesson to be learned 18 years later, it is to believe. Without it, an underdog has no shot.
Arizona, on that September day in Miami, had its shot. Steve McLaughlin barely slid a 51-yard field goal attempt wide right on the final play of the game. The Hurricanes won 8-7.
“We may have lost 8-7, but they were the ones who limped back to the locker room,” said Bray, who later became friends with Miami quarterback Gino Torretta. “To this day, he says that’s the best defense he ever played against.”
Said Miami linebacker Jessie Armstead after the game: “Anybody who knows football knows we got outplayed.”
Armstead might not have known it at the time, but he helped provide Arizona’s fuel that day when he and a couple of the other Miami captains went out for the coin toss before the game.
“They came out and they looked at the ground and put their hands behind their backs when it came time to shake hands,” Bray said.
“Ty Parten and Charlie Camp saw that and they came bounding off the sideline, and the whole team gets right behind us, and from that point on, it was game on.”
The near pre-game brawl at midfield portended an epic defensive struggle. But Miami survived and was 11-0 before losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
At that point of its season, Arizona’s 1992 team had little reason to believe it. And yet it did.
“I just think we knew what we had,” Malauulu said. “We knew we had a team that could play with anybody, anywhere.
“I really think it was the fact that we believed everybody was going to do their job in crunch time, that somebody would make something happen. Everybody at some point in time will have a chance to make a difference, everybody can contribute in a special way.”
* * *
So, Arizona is back again, playing No. 1. The Wildcats have twice played top-ranked teams under Mike Stoops, against USC in 2004 and 2005, but he was just trying to get the program off the ground while the Trojans were at height of their run under Pete Carroll.
It was a mismatch.
Arizona has at least a fighting chance at Oregon. No doubt, it could turn into a rout. The Ducks play that fast, are that explosive.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly is relentless in his “Win the day” philosophy. But for Arizona, it’s time to seize the day.
Do the Wildcats truly realize this is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Was some Wildcat wide awake in the middle of the night at the team hotel, telling his roommate, “Hey, bro, we’re going to win this game?”
This is the game they might be talking about 20 years from now, 30 years from now … for the rest of their lives.
“Man, they might not have this opportunity again — to play with the best team in the country on national television and to have everything they want in their control,” Bray said. “And they can grasp it. There were times when we did that and there were other times we didn’t, but you don’t remember those. You remember the times that you did.”
Also on TucsonCitizen.com: Javier Morales talks to former Wildcats about their 1981 victory over top-ranked USC.