WRITER’S NOTE: Here’s a feature to go with our countdown of the Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Here is a look at the top five games in school history.
The University of Arizona can call the 1980s and 1990s its golden age of football.
The program produced four College Football Hall of Famers, two national Top 10 teams, a pair of victories over top-ranked teams, another pair of wins that prevented rival Arizona State from going to the Rose Bowl and plenty of consistent winning.
Arizona had only three losing seasons during that two-decade run.
That era also produced about two-thirds of the names on our Top 50 countdown of the best UA football players. Not surprisingly, the top five games in school history are all from that time, too.
No. 5 — UA 16, Notre Dame 13 (Oct. 16, 1982)
Notre Dame, ranked ninth nationally with a 4-0 record, took a 10-0 lead in South Bend, Ind., but UA inched back by turning a pair of Irish turnovers into two field goals by Max Zendejas. The Wildcats eventually tied the score at 13 halfway through the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run by Phil Freeman to cap a 79-yard drive.
The Irish stalled at the UA 42-yard line on the ensuing possession, punting into the end zone. Quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe drove UA to the Notre Dame 32 with six seconds left. In came Zendejas, who had to be talked back to the locker room at halftime after sitting on the team bus, furious that coach Larry Smith didn’t let him try a 52-yard field goal late in the first half.
Zendejas made the final-play, 48-yard attempt, the first of his legendary game-winners.
No. 4 — UA 34, ASU 17 (Nov. 22, 1986)
The fourth-ranked Sun Devils already had punched their ticket to Pasadena, but the Wildcats spoiled ASU’s undefeated season (9-0-1) and any hopes of a national championship. The game additionally stands apart because of arguably the greatest play in UA history — Chuck Cecil’s fourth-quarter, 106-yard interception return.
Another key defensive play shouldn’t be forgotten. ASU, trailing 21-10 in the third quarter, went for it on fourth-and-inches at the goal line. Running back Channing Williams bounced a run to the outside, but defensive back James DeBow was waiting, standing him up, legs churning. DeBow, giving up 35 pounds, held off Williams until reinforcements arrived to toss Williams to the turf.
DeBow also had one of three interceptions against Jeff Van Raaphorst, whose 437 passing yards went for naught as the Wildcats won their fifth in a row over the Devils.
No. 3 — UA 29, Miami 0 (Jan. 1, 1994)
This Fiesta Bowl win ranks slightly higher than the 1998 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska because of the totality of the dominance. The Hurricanes suffered their first shutout since the 1979 season.
“They kicked the living tar out of us,” Miami coach Dennis Erickson said.
It was vintage Desert Swarm. Miami never got past the UA 40-yard line and failed to cross midfield in the second half. All-American defensive tackle Rob Waldrop said that the first-team unit stood by defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff late in the game; if the Hurricanes went past the 50, the first-stringers were racing back out there to preserve the shutout.
The Canes rushed for only 35 yards and completed 15 of 44 yards passing. UA posted its first 10-win season.
No. 2 — UA 16, Washington 3 (Nov. 7, 1992)
The Wildcats narrowly had missed a chance at upsetting No. 1 earlier in the season — falling 8-7 at Miami when a last-second 51-yard field-goal attempt slid barely wide right — but didn’t fail in their second chance.
The Arizona Stadium atmosphere was electric for a day game on ABC, and the Desert Swarm defense — so newly minted that sideline reporter Jack Arute referred to it as “Desert Storm” — repeatedly stuffed quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Napoleon Kaufman.
The UA offense did enough, rushing for 197 yards, and repeatedly was rescued by the punting of Josh Miller, who was chosen Player of the Game.
“We didn’t luckily win that ballgame,” backup quarterback and special-teams captain Heath Bray said in 2010. “Let’s be very blunt about this: We beat their ass.”
No. 1 — UA 13, USC 10 (Oct. 10, 1981)
This upset of the No. 1 Trojans rises to the top not only because of its shock value — the Wildcats were 24-point underdogs against a team that had won 22 in a row at the L.A. Coliseum — but because it helped establish the program’s “Giant Killer” mentality that pervaded through the Larry Smith years and across much of the next two decades.
Starting with this game, Smith directed UA to a 5-2-1 record against AP Top 10 teams until his departure after the 1986 season. (Overall, Smith was 6-4-1 vs. the Top 10, which is still pretty amazing.)
USC’s Marcus Allen got his rushing yards that day — 211, marking his fifth consecutive game with more than 200 — but the Wildcats stifled the rest of the Trojans. They crossed midfield just once in the second half and promptly fumbled.
UA rallied from an early 10-0 hole, taking the lead on a 13-yard pass from Tunnicliffe to Vance Johnson late in the third quarter.