It’s up for debate. Which is the signature play in Arizona Wildcats football history: Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard interception return against Arizona State in 1986, or Ortege Jenkins’ flip into the end zone to beat Washington in 1998?
It’s the 15-year anniversary of the latter play, the Leap by the Lake, which came on a late Saturday night in Seattle on Oct. 3, leaving the scribes in the press box scrambling to rewrite their deadline stories as Jenkins’ improbable play gave Arizona a 31-28 victory.
The Wildcats are heading back to Seattle this weekend to play 16th-ranked Washington.
“I wish we had some guys who can leap like Jenkins can leap,” said second-year UA coach Rich Rodriguez. “That was pretty exciting.”
The Pac-12 Networks did a two-hour look-back at the 1998 Arizona-Washington game last fall as part of its “Classic College Football” series. (The Pac-12 Networks will examine UA’s 1992 win over No. 1 Washington later this fall as part of its ongoing series.)
First-year starting quarterback B.J. Denker knows all about the Leap by the Lake (so coined afterward by then-UA assistant media relations director Brett Hansen).
“It’s a huge piece of Arizona football history. That’s the first thing,” Denker said.
“I love it because as a mobile quarterback, I like to dive in the end zone as much as I can. It’s a crazy play. … I’ve heard interviews with him, talking about he didn’t want to be denied getting into the end zone. When I run and I get close to the end zone, that’s my thing, too.”
Denker has better wheels than Jenkins, but as for the leaping ability?
“I don’t really like to do flips,” he said. “But if I need to do it, when the time comes, I’ll sell my body for my team.”
I wrote a long story on the 1998 game on its 10-year anniversary, and here is an amended version that originally appeared in the Tucson Citizen:
* * *
Arizona had called its final timeout. There were 12 seconds left, the Wildcats down four points. Coach Dick Tomey’s message to his quarterback was clear.
“Don’t get sacked,” he told Ortege Jenkins. “If you run, you better make it.”
Arizona was at the Washington 9-yard line. Dennis Northcutt and tight end Mike Lucky were split to the left. Malosi Leonard and Brandon Nash were to the right. Washington had 3-on-2 coverage on both sides.
Jenkins took the snap, looking left for Northcutt, his top receiver. Double-covered. He looked right into the end zone. Nothing. Jenkins continued to drift back.
Running back Trung Canidate swung out to the right, taking a defender with him. Also covered. Jenkins, still backpedaling, was in trouble, retreating all the way to the 20-yard line.
His only choice seemed to be an incompletion to stop the clock.
Well, there was one other option.
All the defensive pass coverage was deep or to the outside. The middle was invitingly clear. Jenkins could run. Do or die. Score or lose. Hero or goat.
With Tomey’s words still echoing – “If you run, you better make it” – Jenkins planted his right foot and charged into history.
• • •
Jenkins started to run and the coaches in the press box jumped out of their chairs.
“It was like, ‘No . . . no . . . no!” remembered defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson, now the head coach at Army. “Actually, I was more like, ‘Don’t do that, you . . .’ ”
There’s sometimes a fine line between bravery and foolishness, but Jenkins, who never lacked for confidence, had made his decision, seeking out pay dirt in the purple end zone of Husky Stadium.
“He goes,” says Fox Sports Net announcer Steve Physioc.
As Jenkins reached the 10, Washington defenders Brendan Jones and Marques Hairston came up from the end zone. Linebacker Lester Towns moved in from Jenkins’ right.
Nash watched helplessly from the end zone; there was no one he could block.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s tackled,’” Nash said. “Just for a second, I was thinking, ‘What is he doing?’”
Jenkins knew he couldn’t make it if he tried to dive low. He knew he wasn’t going to run over a big guy like Towns. Only one way to go.
At about the 3-yard-line, Jenkins left his feet.
“He dives!” Physioc yells.
Jenkins could see the goalpost … and then suddenly he couldn’t. All three Washington defenders hit him low, flipping him heels over head.
“I remember seeing the black sky, the stars in the sky,” Jenkins said.
And then he saw the goalpost again.
“HE’S IN!” screams Physioc.
Jenkins landed on his feet in the end zone, tumbled to the ground and popped right back up, having somehow held on to the ball throughout the flip.
“Once I realized where I was, I knew the game was over,” Jenkins said.
Arizona made the extra point and then needed only to kick off to end the game, winning 31-28. The Leap at the Lake turned out to be the greatest play of Jenkins career.
UA star cornerback Chris McAlister also made the greatest play of his career that night.
And he wasn’t even at the game.
• • •
McAlister was a senior All-American, as good-looking an NFL prospect as Arizona has ever had. But the NCAA suspended McAlister for the Washington game, ruling that week he had taken out an excessive loan for an insurance policy.
The NCAA denied Arizona’s appeal on Friday afternoon, and UA decided at the last minute to let 6-foot-7 quarterback Peter Hansen fill the last spot on the travel roster. More on him later.
“It was like, ‘What are we going to do without Chris McAlister? We have no chance,’” Nash said.
While Jenkins’ leap became an enduring TV highlight, there were no cameras around when McAlister did something coaches and players still speak of in reverent tones.
When the Wildcats’ chartered flight arrived in Tucson at around 3 or 4 in the morning, McAlister was there to greet the team – by himself, in the rain, full of tears.
“He was crying when we left because he was so upset. And when we got back, they were happy tears,” Tomey said. “I remember holding him it seemed like forever.
“I told the NFL scouts when they would come by that it was the greatest play Chris ever made. He never made a play that was as important or will be as important to his team than what he did that night.
“That probably had as much to do with us being a 12-1 team, a great team. He showed real unselfishness. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. Outstanding.”
Tomey, in later coaching stops, used that moment to teach players what it means to be a team.
• • •
Speaking of unselfish, Jenkins is quick to point out there wouldn’t have been a flip, if there hadn’t been “The Drive,” if there hadn’t been heroes, unlikely or otherwise, all over the field.
Peter Hansen, the last guy on the trip? He was a kick-blocking specialist, and he blocked an extra point late in the first half.
Linebacker Marcus Bell blocked a field goal in the third quarter. Nash caught a 2-point conversion.
Little-used defensive backs had to come in for McAlister and Leland Gayles, who was taken to the hospital after suffering a scary neck injury.
Two of the biggest plays came from defensive tackle Keoni Fraser, a true freshman who made two unassisted tackles on running back Willie Hurst near the goal line. A touchdown essentially would have put the game out of reach.
Instead, Jim Skurski missed a 23-yard field goal wide right. He never kicked for Washington again.
Arizona took over at its 20 with 2:52 left, needing a touchdown.
The Wildcats were short-handed at wideout. Brad Brennan didn’t make the trip because of an ankle injury, and Jeremy McDaniel left the game because of a groin injury.
“We started our 2-minute drill and had to go to three receivers, and we didn’t have enough bodies,” said then-offensive coordinator Dino Babers, now the head coach at Eastern Illinois. “The receivers were getting so tired.”
On first-and-10 from the UA 32, the coaches put in tag-team quarterback Keith Smith, giving the receivers a break by putting Jenkins out wide. Smith fielded a low shotgun snap and fired to Jenkins for a 22-yard catch.
“Imagine,” Babers said. “The guy who flipped into the end zone caught a pass on that drive as a receiver.”
Arizona converted three third-down plays on the drive, and nearly scored a couple of plays before the leap.
Jenkins completed a 23-yard pass to Nash over the middle to the 1-yard-line. Nash, a reserve playing extensively because of the injuries, left his feet to make the catch.
“I just wanted to catch the ball,” Nash said.
“I caught it falling down, basically. And then I’m on the ground and look around and I’m like, ‘Dude, the end zone is right there. I should have stayed on my feet. What the heck?’”
A false start penalty moved the ball back to the 6. Jenkins was sacked for a loss of 3 yards before UA used its final timeout.
Then came the play that everyone remembers.
When FSN put together the “Best Damn Unbelievable College Football Moments Top-50 Countdown” in October 2007, Jenkins’ flip was No. 41.
Tomey said at the time it was the most unbelievable play he had ever seen.
Did he still feel that way in 2008?
“Oh, sure,” Tomey said. “But it was also the whole improbable setup of the thing.”
“What it came down to,” Jenkins said, “was that a lot of people made plays.”
• • •
The victory moved Arizona to 5-0 and set up one of the biggest games in UA history the following week. Ninth-ranked UA played host to No. 3 UCLA, the first Pac-10 meeting of top-10 teams in seven years.
The Wildcats lost 52-28 to the Bruins but ended the regular season 11-1 and went to the Holiday Bowl, where they beat Nebraska and finished fourth in both major polls.
The play was nominated for an ESPY award that year.
“Yeah, I guess it’s changed my life,” Jenkins said in 2008.
“Any time I meet anybody who knows anything related to football, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the guy who did the flip in Washington.’”