It was the week before the 1998 Holiday Bowl, and Arizona coach Dick Tomey was riding a theme.
Arizona defenders bring down Nebraska's Shevin Wiggins in the 1998 Holiday Bowl/Tucson Citizen photo
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.”
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 by 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 secured the victory by running off all but the final 34 seconds.
That was so fitting. McAlister started the season with a kickoff return for a touchdown at Hawaii, and he basically ended the season with another big play.
“This is the happiest and saddest time of my life,” McAlister said after the game.
|Pacific Life Holiday Bowl
|Date: Dec. 30
|TV: 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
|San Diego, Calif.
“This was a tremendous win for the University of Arizona, and that makes me very happy. But I’ll never get to strap on my helmet as a Wildcat again … and that’s the sad part. I can’t believe it’s over.”
The interception 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.
Arizona would have led, but McAlister had a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown called back because of a questionable block-in-the-back penalty against Derek Hall. Tomey called it an “awful call.”
Hall said after the game that the official later told him that it might have been a clean block.
“And (he) kinda winked at me,” Hall said.
The score stayed 13-9 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.
Crouch, who was the Huskers’ leading rusher with 28 yards on 15 carries, completed just 12 of 28 passes.
“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’s team was filled with NFL talent — including three who are still in the NFL — cornerback McAlister, receiver Dennis Northcutt and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. Offensive lineman Edwin Mulitalo had a long pro career.
Several others played in the NFL, including first-round running back Trung Canidate, defensive end Joe Tafoya, 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 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 . . .
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.
“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 hiring of John Mackovic in 2000 sank the program lower. Then came Mike Stoops. His massive rebuilding project took a significant step with last season’s Las Vegas Bowl victory over BYU.
And now another step — an 8-4 regular season and, 11 years later, a rematch with Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
The Wildcats can only hope that the “N” on those helmets still stands for “Not today.”
Writer’s note: My first version of this story originally appeared in the Tucson Citizen in August 2008. I tweaked a few things and added a new ending.