No need to lie about it.
Arizona’s home game against 16th-ranked UCLA on Saturday is the first November matchup in Tucson that has real implications in the league race since 2009. There just hasn’t been all that many such games this late in the season at Arizona Stadium over the years.
Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez is a one-play-at-a-time kind of guy, but there is no denying the stakes are high — and would get higher with a win over the Bruins.
Each team enters at 3-2 in the Pac-12 South, tied with USC and one game behind Arizona State.
“It’s a big game,” Rodriguez said.
“I could give you the standard coachspeak that they’re all important, they’re all big, they all count as one — and that’s true — but with a ranked team, and you’re home and with a lot of stakes in the next four weeks … it adds to it.”
Even budgeting a future loss to Oregon, it’s not far-fetched for Arizona to win the South at 6-3, with wins over UCLA, Washington State and at Arizona State.
So, yeah, this is a big one.
The outcome will help determine exactly how big.
For now, revisiting a piece I write in 2009, here is how I see the five biggest home games in Arizona history during the Pac-10 years:
1. Washington, Nov. 7, 1992
No. 1 Washington had won 22 games in a row, including a 54-0 whitewash of the Wildcats a year earlier, and had been co-national champs in 1991. Arizona, out of the blue, had won four in a row behind the early stirrings of the Desert Swarm defense.
A sun-drenched crowd of 58,510 watched Arizona upset the Huskies 16-3 to improve to 4-1-1 in the Pac-10.
Although Washington would eventually make it to the Rose Bowl, this marked the beginning of the end for the Huskies, who learned that week of an investigation into quarterback Billy Joe Hobert.
Arizona lost its final two games of the regular season in painful fashion — 14-7 at USC on a fourth-quarter halfback touchdown pass from Deon Strother, and 7-6 to Arizona State on a 51-yard tackle-breaking run from Kevin Galbreath … the only time the Sun Devils crossed midfield all game.
If Arizona had won its last two games, it would have finished 6-1-1 in the conference, a half-game ahead of Washington and Stanford at 6-2.
2. Oregon, Nov. 21, 2009
ESPN GameDay was on campus for the matchup against the 11th-ranked Ducks, with the Wildcats, even at 4-2 in the league, controlling its fate in the conference race. A win over Oregon, followed by road wins over ASU and USC would give the Cats the Pac-10 title.
Arizona was on its way to taking the first step, leading 24-14 early in the fourth quarter and hanging on in the final minute as fans poured out of the stands, anticipating victory, only to be sent back to their seats when the Ducks, after converting fourth-and-4 at the UA 22, tied the game with a 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left.
Oregon won 44-41 in double overtime, with Jeremiah Masoli keeping on a 1-yard touchdown run.
“We were one play short,” coach Mike Stoops said after the game.
The Ducks went on to win the Pac-10 while Arizona, after beating the Sun Devils and Trojans on the road, earned a Holiday Bowl berth.
3. UCLA, Oct. 10, 1998
Ortege Jenkins’ Leap by the Lake happened a week earlier, so Tucson was as amped as possible as the No. 10 Wildcats took on No. 3 UCLA, the first Pac-10 meeting of top-10 teams in seven years. ABC yawned, opting to televise No. 21 Notre Dame at 2-2 Arizona State instead.
It was still early in the season, so the game didn’t take on a winner-take-all quality, even though that is what it turned out to be. Arizona was 5-0 overall, 2-0 in the league. UCLA, with Heisman candidate quarterback Cade McNown, was 3-0 and 1-0.
A crowd of 58,738 turned out to see two dynamic offenses, and it was quite a show through three quarters, with the Bruins holding a 31-28 lead. But one play early in the fourth quarter broke Arizona … and its best player was the one responsible.
McNown, as he had earlier in the game, ran down the line to his left, showing option. This time, however, he stopped, dropped back and hit a wide-open Danny Farmer for a 64-yard touchdown. All-American cornerback Chris McAlister had fallen for the fake.
“We ran a couple of options on them a few times and the corners blew off the wide receivers,” McNown said after the game. ”We had a feeling that it was going to work.”
UCLA scored 21 fourth-quarter points and won 52-28. The Bruins wouldn’t lose until a hurricane-delayed game at Miami on Dec. 5, knocking UCLA out of the first BCS national title game. If the Bruins had been able to tackle Edgerrin James that day, Arizona, at 11-1 in the regular season, would have gone to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-10 representative while UCLA played for the national championship.
4. Arizona State, Nov. 27, 1982
ASU fans brought roses to Arizona Stadium as the Sun Devils, coming in ranked sixth in the nation with a 5-1 league mark, needed just to beat a 5-4-1 Arizona team to get to its first Rose Bowl.
Arizona State, thanks mostly to coach Frank Kush, had a headlock on the rivalry at that time, winning 15 of the previous 17 games. But with 58,515 on hand, the Wildcats turned those red roses black.
The signature play was Brian Holland taking a short pass from Tom Tunicliffe and racing 92 yards for a touchdown. UA held on to win 28-18, sending UCLA to the Rose Bowl instead of ASU.
For Arizona, it was the glorious start of a nine-year unbeaten streak against ASU.
5. UCLA, Nov. 9, 1985
The Wildcats came into the game at 3-1 in the conference, and they played only seven conference games that season in what was an unbalanced league schedule in those days. The Wildcats, if they could win their final three games, starting with 14th-ranked UCLA (6-1-1, 4-1), would be the Pac-10 champs.
Arizona trailed 17-0 at halftime, but began to rally when Chuck Cecil — who else? — blocked a punt that went out of bounds at the UCLA 7. James DeBow scored two plays later to cut the lead to 10. The Bruins regained a 17-point lead with the help of a long pass from (future Pac-10 TV analyst) David Norrie to (future UCLA head coach) Karl Dorrell.
The Wildcats weren’t done, scoring on another short DeBow run and getting a 61-yard interception return for a touchdown from lineman Dana Wells. Arizona missed the two-point conversion, however, to keep the score at 24-19. That was important because Arizona had the ball at the UCLA 32 as time ran out.
Think Max Zendejas could have kicked the tying field goal?
Arizona would win those final two games to finish 5-2 in the league. UCLA won at 6-2.
HONORABLE MENTION: Arizona State, Nov. 22, 1986
The Sun Devils had already clinched the Pac-10 title and their first Rose Bowl appearance, but the Wildcats still found a way to be spoilers.
Playing in front of 58,267 — the second-largest crowd in Arizona Stadium at the time — Arizona shocked fourth-ranked ASU 34-17 with the most memorable play in school history.
If you’ve seen it once, you’ve probably seen it hundreds of times, and it never gets old: Cecil’s 106-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I just ran,” Cecil told the Citizen years later. “I still, to this day, don’t know why I ran it out.”