Opportunity beckons for Arizona
By Anthony Gimino
TUCSON -- Arizona has played No. 1 teams before. Twice under coach Mike Stoops. But this game -- at top-ranked Oregon on Friday night -- feels different.
It's late in the season. The game is in its own prime-time slice of national television space on a huge day for college football. And never mind that Arizona has lost two in a row and that the Ducks have the nation's most explosive offense -- the Wildcats have a fighting chance.
You couldn't really say that when Arizona played No. 1 USC in 2004 and 2005, when Stoops was still trying to get the program back off the ground.
Yeah, playing Oregon in Autzen Stadium is the nation's toughest challenge right now.
That also means it's the nation's biggest opportunity.
We asked one who knows: Former Arizona captain Heath Bray, who was on the 1992 team that beat top-ranked Washington 16-3, the Wildcats' last victory over a No. 1 opponent.
"I tell you," said Bray, now a financial consultant in the Phoenix area, "if someone is not in front of that team telling them what kind of lifelong opportunity they can grasp Friday night ...
"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. 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."
Do the Wildcats have that kind of fire in their belly right now?
They have had almost two weeks to prepare for this game. That should be a good thing -- to study how Cal held Oregon to 15 points in a near upset on Nov. 13, to acclimate to the Ducks' fast-paced offense, to tweak schemes and potentially surprise Oregon with heaven knows what.
There's no guarantee that playing fast and loose with a devil-may-care attitude will win the day in Eugene, but without those things, Arizona probably has no choice.
"We don't have much to lose," Stoops admitted. "We have to be aggressive. That's the only way you can beat a team like this."
The point is, this is no time for the well-worn "it's just another game" nonsense. It's not. This game could be career-defining. To borrow a basketball phrase, it could be one shining moment. You don't get that when playing Toledo, or even Cal, Oregon State, Washington State, etc.
This is the kind of game that gives Arizona players a chance to be yapping about the good ol' glory days 20 years from now.
We asked another one who knows: Tony Bouie.
The former Arizona All-American safety was a key part of the 1992 team that toppled the Huskies, and it is Bouie's big hit on receiver Jason Shelley that stands as one of the game's signature moment. Bouie arrived at the same time as the ball, which popped in the air. Cornerback Keshon Johnson ran underneath it for the interception.
"As a matter of fact, I just had a discussion with Lincoln Kennedy about that game," Bouie said, referring to the former Washington All-American offensive tackle.
"He still has really sad memories about that game and won't really talk about it. We kind of laughed about it a little bit."
Well, at least Bouie did.
Maybe 20 years from now, Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed can call up Oregon running back LaMichael James and say, "Remember that time when I tackled you and stripped the ball ..."
It's not as if Arizona doesn't know it can handle Oregon.
The Wildcats led 31-24 in the fourth quarter last season before the Ducks rallied with a late drive to tie the score, eventually winning in double overtime.
Arizona trailed 45-17 at halftime in Autzen Stadium two years ago, but the Wildcats furiously rallied within 48-45 in the fourth quarter and had fourth-and-3 at the Oregon 45 with four minutes left. Alas, running back Keola Antolin let a swing pass bounce off his hands on a play that was set up for a big gain. The Ducks won 55-45.
"I thought we were going to go in and score and come all the way back," Stoops said.
Three years ago, Arizona defeated the second-ranked Ducks 34-24. Yeah, Oregon star quarterback Dennis Dixon left with a knee injury early in the game, but a big win is a big win.
Four years ago, Arizona routed Oregon in a mid-November game in Autzen, winning 37-10.
"It's not like this is the first highly ranked team we've played," said Arizona senior safety Joseph Perkins. "It's not something we haven't seen before."
True. But this opportunity is bigger. This sometimes comes around only once in a career.
The Wildcats have to recognize that and play accordingly.