In the 50 days leading up to Arizona’s season-opener against Toledo, on Sept. 1 at Arizona Stadium, TucsonCitizen.com and its affiliate WildAboutAZCats.net have ranked the Top 50 games in the history of the football program. The ranking has reached the No. 1 game as the kickoff to the Wildcats’ season — and the start of the Rich Rodriguez era — is only one day away. Thank you for reading.
SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 13, No. 1 Southern Cal Trojans 10
DATE: October 10, 1981
SITE: Los Angeles Coliseum, 56,315 in attendance
WHY IT MADE THE LIST: Arizona coach Larry Smith placed his thumb and forefinger an inch apart while standing before his Wildcats in practice leading up to the Wildcats’ first game in school history against a No. 1-ranked team.
“There’s just that much difference between the No. 1 team and, say, the No. 56 team,” Smith told them.
Historically, the gap was as wide as the Grand Canyon between Arizona and USC when they faced each other in 1981.
The Wildcats, in only their fourth year in the Pac-10, traveled to Los Angeles to face No. 1 USC, a school it had never beaten in nine tries. The Trojans by that time had won nine national titles and eight Rose Bowls. The Wildcats, 24-point underdogs, lost 34-7 to USC in their previous trip to Los Angeles in 1979. Arizona was 0-7 there, with most of the games taking place in the 1920s.
The Trojans, featuring Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Allen and All-American defensive back
The Wildcats were 2-2, having played their first four games at home. USC was 4-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country with wins over Tennessee and Oklahoma at the Coliseum.
Despite all the odds against them, the Wildcats believed in their opportunity because of how the late Smith, who passed away in 2008, motivated them.
“I remember Coach Smith saying, ‘Sixty men together on the same page can’t lose,’” Julius Holt, a junior defensive tackle in 1981, told me.
Holt danced about and yelled loud enough for everyone to hear near the Arizona locker room after the upset: “We came to play! They came to sleep!”
Randy Robbins, a defensive back who played nine years in the NFL, told me that Arizona used its underdog role and inexperience in such contests to their benefit.
“I remember everyone — media, etc. — saying for the week was how invincible USC was compared to everyone they had played so far to date,” Robbins said. “As players, we were such a young group as a whole. We were kind of oblivious as to what the stakes were about this game.
“We felt that no one was giving us a chance in this game. However, as players we were not afraid or not intimidated by USC. They were going to get our best effort as players. (That’s) what we decided as a team.”
Arizona’s will was tested early as the Trojans took a 10-0 lead after less than eight minutes. Allen broke off a student-body-right play for 74 yards for the first score and Steve Jordan kicked a 21-yard field goal.
“We were a bit shaken (after Allen’s touchdown run),” Mark Walczak, a tight end with the Wildcats, told me. “But our defense got tough and and the offense made things happen.
“By half we knew we knew that we could beat them if we played hard and mistake-free and we did.”
Two Brett Weber field goals, one a 47-yarder 30 seconds before halftime and a 25-yarder in the third quarter, cut the lead to 10-6. On Arizona’s last offensive play of the third quarter, sophomore quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe, from nearby Burbank, Calif., hit freshman tailback Vance Johnson with a 13-yard touchdown pass that put the Wildcats ahead for good .
The Wildcats pulled off their greatest upset in the greatest game to date in school history thanks to Tunnicliffe’s 293 yards passing and a defense that yielded only 297 yards in total offense, 186 yards under the mighty Trojans’ average.
Allen ran for 211 yards in 26 carries and extended his NCAA record of consecutive 200-yard rushing games to five, but the other Trojans were nowhere to be found. The rest of the running backs gained only 26 yards and USC passed for only 60 yards. Arizona outgained USC 405-297 in total yards.
The Wildcats’ defense, led by College Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Hunley, Robbins and Holt, limited USC’s offense to only nine plays in the third period and 15 in the fourth. The Trojans crossed midfield only once in the second half. They fumbled on the first play after crossing the 50-yard line.
“Arizona deserved to win and they outplayed us in every phase of the game,” USC coach John Robinson was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times. “They also outcoached us. We played inconsistently and coached inconsistently. You have to give Arizona credit. They just kept coming at us.”
Robinson was so impressed he visited Smith and the Wildcats in their locker room after the game to congratulate them.
Steve Grimley, who covered the game for the Orange County (Calif.) Register, delivered a paragraph in his report that deserves repeating:
The difference was Tunnicliffe, who defied the rules of football logic and played ball-control offense with the forward pass. Throwing in the shadow of a huge, purple stage erected for this weekend’s Rolling Stones concerts in the Coliseum, he definitely had the Trojan secondary under his thumb.
Grimley also offered a quote to remember from Arizona offensive lineman Frank Kalil:
Kalil, the 245-pound Wildcat left guard out of Servite High, agreed that the Trojans seemed unprepared for a passing attack. “‘All their linemen try to do is overpower you. They think that’s all they have to do,” he said. “Well, not everyone is Oregon State. They’re not big enough just to run over everyone. Hey, I can press 500 pounds. You can’t just run over me.”
Tunnicliffe was also instrumental coming off the bench in Arizona’s upset over No. 2 UCLA the previous season in Tucson when it appeared the Bruins would become the No. 1 team in the nation because of top-ranked Alabama’s loss earlier that day.
“Tunnicliffe just seemed to get hot,” Jay Dobyns, a freshman receiver with the Cats in 1981, told me about the quarterback’s performance against USC. “Brad Anderson, Mark Keel and Kevin Ward were making big catches and you could feel it. Tom always played great against the LA schools.”
Tunnicliffe, nicknamed Tom “Terrific” during his UA days from 1980-1983, ranks third at Arizona in career passing yards with 7,618. He was atop that list until Willie Tuitama passed for 9,211 between 2005-2008. Nick Foles (2009-2011) now holds the record with 10,011.
USC’s vaunted defense that included Lott, cornerback Joey Browner and linebackers Chip Banks and Jack Del Rio only sacked Tunnicliffe once. Smith pointed out to the media after the game the sack occurred only because Arizona had just 10 players on the field.
“Someone is bound to be open if the quarterback has all day to pick out his receivers,” Browner is quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times.
Tunnicliffe, who played at 6-foot and 200 pounds, was not drafted and signed by an NFL team because of his height, but his resolve stood tall in some of Arizona’s biggest victories against USC, UCLA, ASU and Notre Dame. He is as identifiable in Arizona’s most significant victories in school history as anybody. Max Zendejas and Chuck Cecil are right up there with him.
“The things I use the most are perseverance and optimism,” Tunnicliffe told The Los Angeles Times in a 1991 article. “As bad as things get, they can be turned around. If you have the discipline to do the fundamentals and stay your course, good things will happen.”
The Arizona football program is Tunnicliffe in microcosm. Long considered below the top rung of Pac-12 programs because of their inability to earn a Rose Bowl berth, the Wildcats continue to persevere and remain optimistic through all the changes in coaches, players and schemes.
Arizona’s win over USC in 1981 put the Wildcats on the regional map as the Wildcats turned the page from their WAC days. The upset enhanced the Wildcats’ image in southern California, impacting recruiting and the public perception of Arizona. The days in which Arizona was confused with Arizona State became fewer with such important victories under Smith.
“When you stand your ground and go toe to toe with the best and succeed it is always the time that a teams feels at its best,” Walczak said.
No. 2 — UA beats No. 1 Washington as it expected with dominant Desert Swarm (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 3 — Arizona’s Desert Swarm and offense too much for Miami in historic Fiesta Bowl shutout (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 4 — ASU smells roses but through broken nose as Cecil, DeBow lead Cats (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 5 — Zendejas returns after hastily leaving UA at halftime, makes 48-yard FG to beat Notre Dame (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 6 — 1982 upset win keeps Sun Devils from Rose Bowl, starts “The Streak” (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 7 — “Leap by the Lake” most amazing individual play in UA history gives Cats win over Huskies (WildAboutAZCats.com)
No. 8 — UA loses heartbreaker to ASU wondering: “The Catch” really a catch? (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 9 — Arizona (12-1) achieves best record, highest ranking to end season with 1998 win over Nebraska (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 10 — UA wins 1926 game after McKale delivers Salmon’s “Bear Down” line (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 11 — The Desert Swarm is born in 1992 near-upset of top-ranked Miami at the Orange Bowl (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 12 — Zendejas’ 57-yard FG ties UA record, keeps ASU out of Rose Bowl again (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 13 — Arizona blows 20-point lead and shot at the Rose Bowl with 1993 collapse at California (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 14 — UA upsets No. 2 UCLA in 1980 when Bruins appeared ready to be No. 1 (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 15 — L.A. Times reporter: Arizona shows “fight of wildcats” in 1914 game vs. Occidental (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 16 — UA leads UCLA late in third quarter but loses big in 12-1 season (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 17 — Unranked Arizona upsets Ohio State, Woody Hayes in Buckeyes’ 1967 opener in Columbus (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 18 — Arizona and hasty coach Mudra lose Ultimatum Bowl to ASU in 1968 (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 19 — Arizona keeps “The Streak” without loss to ASU alive in ’87 with bizarre finish that ends in tie (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 20 — Arizona fit to be tied with Cal despite leading 26-3 in third quarter (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 21 — Zendejas’ last-second 45-yard FG vs. ASU generates momentum for “The Streak” to endure (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 22 — Arizona wins its first bowl behind “Heat-seeking Missile” Chuck Cecil (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 23 — Collapse vs. Utah after leading 27-0 in fourth quarter changed the face of UA football (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 24 — UA shuts out ASU, Kush during dominating run for Sun Devils coach (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 25 — Arizona’s defense and Doug Pfaff’s last-second FG enough to upset sixth-ranked Oklahoma (WildAboutAZCats.com)
No. 26 — UA upsets ASU from Fiesta Bowl consideration in program’s best stretch (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 27 — Trung Canidate rushes for record 288 yards and three long TDs in ’98 shootout against ASU (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 28 — UA dominates No. 3 SMU, highest ranked non-conference foe to lose to Cats (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 29 — Arizona stuns second-ranked Oregon in most significant victory in Mike Stoops era (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 30 — Arizona win on last-second FG over ASU ends Kush dominance in series (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 31 — Arizona reaches its zenith under Stoops with victory over Brigham Young in Las Vegas Bowl (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 32 — Arizona owed Cal a couple, knock Bears out of BCS title, Rose Bowl run (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 33 — Arizona’s 10-9 loss at Oregon in 1994, derailing its Rose Bowl hopes, still hurts (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 34 — ASU ripe for picking in banana uniforms for “The Streak” to reach eight (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 35 — Arizona tries risky fake PAT to beat California but loses in epic 4 overtime game (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 36 — Veal to Hill “Hail Mary” pass highlights “The Streak” reaching seven games against ASU (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 37 — USC outlasts Arizona 48-41 in one of most wild games played in Tucson (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 38 — Arizona shows signs of life under Stoops with rout over No. 7 UCLA (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 39 — Art Luppino “The Cactus Comet” rockets toward 38 yards per carry and five touchdowns (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 40 — Fumblerooski enables Arizona to sweep USC, UCLA in L.A. for first time (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 41 — Sun Devil nemesis Dan White quarterbacks Arizona into Fiesta Bowl with win over ASU (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 42 — Struggling UA gets improbable win against ’83 Pac-10 champ UCLA (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 43 — Closing chapter of “The Streak” includes Arizona’s dramatic fourth-quarter heroics (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 44 — Arizona overcomes rival Texas Tech with unfathomable late-game rally (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 45 — Dick Tomey, the Desert Fox, does a number on UCLA by changing offense in midseason (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 46 — “The Streak” reaches three games, UA achieves best Pac-10 finish (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 47 — Arizona’s first game at Arizona Stadium in 1929, a 35-0 win over Cal Tech (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 48 — Underdog Arizona’s 2011 thriller over arch-rival Arizona State (TucsonCitizen.com)
No. 49 — Arizona’s first win over arch-rival Arizona State, then known as Territorial Normal (WildAboutAZCats.net)
No. 50 — Arizona’s first win in program’s history: 22-5 over Tucson Indians (TucsonCitizen.com)