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Best College Football Moments in University of Arizona History

Brian PedersenFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 10, 2017

Best College Football Moments in University of Arizona History

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The University of Arizona has fielded a college football team since 1899, when the team went 1-1-1 against a schedule that included two "town" teams from Tucson, as well as rival Arizona State.

    It wasn't until 1914 that Arizona became known as the Wildcats, and only because a reporter from the Los Angeles Times compared the team's play in a game against Occidental College as having "fought like wildcats."

    Through more than 100 years of football, there have been plenty of memorable moments. But which are the best ones, the ones that every diehard Wildcat fan can name without hesitation?

    Click through the slideshow to see the greatest moments in Arizona Wildcats football history.

8. New Mexico Bowl Comeback

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    It's hard to consider a win in an ultra low-tier bowl game that significant for any program, let alone one from one of the top conferences in college football. But Arizona's 49-48 win over Nevada in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl might be the exception.

    Take into consideration the Wildcats were playing in a bowl in the first season under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, who had been brought in to right the ship following a 4-8 campaign in 2011 during which Arizona fired Mike Stoops. It had taken Stoops five years to get the Wildcats into a bowl. School wins leader Dick Tomey didn't get there until his third season in Tucson.

    Beyond that, though, the game last December was chock-full of highlights of an Arizona team that broke all sorts of school records for offense in 2012. The game also showcased that team's unwillingness to quit after falling behind 21-0 in the first 11 minutes of play, then trailing 45-28 entering the fourth quarter.

    Arizona was behind 48-35 with 1:44 left, following a Nevada field goal, when the Wildcats flipped the switch on one of the most amazing comebacks in college football history: two touchdowns in a 27-second span in the final minute of play, with a recovered onside kick in between.

    The victory put a nice bow on a successful first season under Rodriguez, and also served as the opening salvo in one of the most memorable days in UA sports history, as later that evening the Wildcats' men's basketball team beat highly ranked Florida at home on a basket in the final seconds.

7. Ka'Deem Carey's Record-Breaking Day

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    Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

    In a season with far too many late-night kickoffs for the fanbase's liking, the sudden presence of a 11 a.m. local time start — and for homecoming — led to an odd game-day atmosphere on Nov. 10, 2012. But for the actual bodies among the announced crowd of 51,236 at Arizona Stadium, it was a game they'll never forget.

    Ka'Deem Carey, who is poised to become Arizona's career rushing leader, went off for a school- and Pac-12 Conference-record 366 rushing yards, along with five touchdowns, in the Wildcats' 56-31 romp over Colorado.

    The game started off sluggishly enough, with the Wildcats turning it over on their first offensive play, allowing the Buffaloes to take a 7-0 lead. Then Carey took over, scoring on a 10-yard run to cap a long drive to tie the game. He'd add two more TD runs in the second quarter, the last a 30-yarder that got the crowd thinking a big day was in store from Carey.

    He scored on an eight-yard run in the third quarter, then tied the school record for TDs with a three-yard scamper midway through the fourth. In between the touchdowns, he repeatedly gashed Colorado's defense for huge chunks of yardage, passing the previous Arizona single-game record of 288 (by Trung Canidate, set in the 1998 rivalry game with Arizona State) and then, finally, former Washington State star Rueben Mayes' league mark of 357 yards from 1984.

    Carey's amazing day began a string of what has now become 13 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.

6. 1998 Holiday Bowl Win over Nebraska

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Arizona had played in bigger bowls than the 1998 Holiday Bowl, but there had never been a better season in school history than the one that preceded the late December trip to San Diego to take on Big 12 Conference power Nebraska.

    The Wildcats came in with an 11-1 record, the only blemish an October home loss to UCLA that kept them out of their first-ever Rose Bowl. Arizona had never before won 11 games in a season, and hasn't since, so despite the lack of a New Year's Day bowl game, the season was going down in the record books even before kickoff.

    But after UA finished off a defense-driven 23-20 win over Nebraska, holding the Cornhuskers and their option run game to just 87 yards, the lasting images of coach Dick Tomey and players like Chris McAlister, Trung Canidate and Keith Smith holding the bowl trophy put an extra shine on the greatest season in school history.

    Arizona finished the season fourth in the Associated Press poll, its highest final ranking ever.

5. 1994 Fiesta Bowl Win over Miami (Fla.)

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    The 1993 season is a close second to 1998 in terms of school success, with Arizona going 9-2 and finishing in a three-way tie for first in the Pac-10 Conference. The Wildcats lost out on a chance to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time via tiebreakers, with UCLA representing the league in Pasadena.

    However, Arizona's season was strong enough to earn it a bid into the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., marking the first (and only) time the school has ever played on New Year's Day.

    And boy did the Wildcats make the most of that opportunity, blitzing Miami (Fla.) 29-0 to finish the year 10-2 and earn a No. 9 ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

    With so many players coming back from that team, the hype and expectations surrounding the 1994 Arizona season were immense, so much so that the Wildcats ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated as that magazine's pick to finish No. 1.

    But that's an unfortunate story for another day...

4. The Birth of Bear Down

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    For more than 80 years, Arizona has had a motto, "Bear Down," that has become as synonymous with the school's athletic program as any player, coach, mascot or championship.

    The phrase came from UA athlete and student body president John "Button" Salmon, who died in 1926 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident an hour north of Tucson. Before he passed, though, several of his teammates and football coach J.F. "Pop" McKale went to see him at the hospital.

    It was there that Salmon, in his final words, said, "Tell them...tell the team to bear down." And it's the mantra all Wildcats have clung to ever since.

    A statue honoring Salmon has been on the UA campus since the mid-1980s, and this past year it was moved from in front of the McKale Center basketball/volleyball arena to right outside the entrance to the football team's new training facility on the north side of Arizona Stadium. It's become a common practice of football players and coaches to pat the statue for good luck prior to heading into the locker room before a game.

3. The Leap by the Lake

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    The 1998 season is considered the best in Arizona football history, both by record and accomplishments. And the journey included plenty of memorable moments, the least of which came in the final moments of an early October trip to Seattle.

    Trailing 20th-ranked Washington 28-24 with 12 seconds remaining, quarterback Ortege Jenkins went under center from the Huskies' 10-yard line. After dropping back and seeing no open receivers, Jenkins jetted forward and headed toward the end zone.

    Three Washington players converged just outside the goal line, ready to take Jenkins down, but instead they could only whiff at the air as Jenkins leaped into the air and somersaulted into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

    The play, known ever since as the Leap by the Lake, moved Arizona to 5-0 on the season and set up its showdown with No. 5 UCLA in Tucson the following week. The Wildcats lost that game, but finished 12-1 after beating Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

2. Upset of No. 1 Washington

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    Arizona had faced a top-ranked opponent before in its history, but had never been able to take down the No. 1 team. In the 1992 season, the Wildcats had two opportunities to do so, but a missed field goal in the final seconds at Miami (Fla.) resulted in an 8-7 loss to the No. 1 Hurricanes in late September.

    Given another chance to make history, though, Arizona didn't squander that chance.

    Top-ranked Washington rolled into town with an 8-0 record and all the momentum in the world, winning its previous three games by a combined score of 96-17.

    Arizona was also running hot, riding a four-game win streak following the Miami loss, allowing only 26 points total in those victories.

    The game ended up being one of those typical Dick Tomey-era defensive struggles, with Arizona's offense taking a back seat to an early version of what would become the Wildcats' vaunted Desert Swarm defense.

    The Wildcats held Washington to a single field goal, winning 16-3 in a nationally televised game that venerable broadcaster Keith Jackson's voice will forever be linked with via highlight videos.

1. Chuck Cecil's 100-Yard Interception Return vs. Arizona State

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    The 1986 season wasn't one of the most successful in school history, nor was it one of the worst. Like a lot of Arizona football campaigns, it was kind of right down the middle.

    But the way it ended? Well, that was the stuff of Wildcat legend and lore.

    The annual rivalry game with Arizona State was in Tucson that year, with the Sun Devils bringing an undefeated record and a No. 4 national ranking into the Nov. 22 contest. But it was the Wildcats that took control of the game early, leading 24-10 in the third quarter.

    But ASU had driven deep into Wildcat territory when Sun Devils quarterback Todd Van Raaphorst rolled right, stopped, looked left and threw toward what he thought was an open receiver crossing the end zone.

    Instead, seemingly out of nowhere came Arizona defensive back Chuck Cecil, who leaped into the air to snag the pass. One hundred yards later, Arizona had a 31-10 lead and the football program had what has been voted by fans as the greatest play in school history.

    Two years later Cecil, as a senior, would be voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.

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