2. Oregon (8-1, No. 2) vs. Arizona (4-6)
Nov. 15, 2007
This was a game where Mike Stoops' squad was well-prepared and focused.
When Arizona comfortably beat UCLA at Homecoming in 2007, the Zona Zoo started haphazardly trickling toward the field. It partially made sense, because with the UA’s enormous and unexpected homecoming wins over top-10 teams the previous two years, there was a feeling that a tradition of homecoming field storming had begun.
But the Wildcats were a competitive team in 2007, while UCLA was on the decline, only a few weeks away from ousting its head coach, Karl Dorrell. On top of that, the Cats’ biggest home game of the season still laid ahead – a meeting with the national title-hopeful Ducks just 12 days later.
With that in mind, and believing the UA actually stood a chance against their rivals from the Northwest, I stood still in my seat, even stopping one passerby bound for the field, telling him, “Save it for Oregon.”
He responded, “But we’re not going to beat Oregon!” and continued on to become part of one of the weaker field rushes in memory.
I still recall retorting, as that confidence-lacking undergrad turned away, “You just wait.”
Nov. 15, 2007 was a special day for yours truly, and not just because No. 2-ranked Oregon was in Tucson for a prime time Thursday night showdown. No, it was particularly special because at roughly 2:30 in the afternoon, I walked out of the University Services building on campus having just finished a final exam for a correspondence class, thus officially completing my undergraduate coursework.
Outside, I strolled east past Old Main into the perfect celebratory setting, meeting friends on the Mall for the tailgate and basking in the hype brought on by the presence of ESPN on that cool, overcast afternoon. In a nod to the broadcaster of that evening’s game (and in a shameless attempt to attract the aim of their cameras), I carried with me a homemade sign that pointed out what had become a fact of life in Tucson for several years:
The only upsetting thing in the early stages of the game, however, was the UA’s inability to stop Heisman hopeful quarterback Dennis Dixon or his backfield counterpart, Jonathan Stewart. Dixon dashed for a 39-yard score on the game’s opening drive, and the Ducks converted the two-point conversion. Willie Tuitama was intercepted on Arizona’s second offensive play, and UO quickly drove 53 yards in four plays, setting up a first and goal from the Arizona four-yard line.
With the Wildcats looking destined to fall behind by 15 or 16 points, they needed a big play to turn the tides. It only took a few moments.
Dixon’s first down pass into the endzone bounced off his receiver’s hands and into the waiting arms of Arizona safety Nate Ness, who returned the interception near midfield. Arizona Stadium shook with the explosion of energy that accompanied the instant reversal of fortune, and the Wildcats scored four plays later on a 34-yard swing pass from Tuitiama to Mike Thomas. The momentum was shifted, and the Cats continued to ride the wave, taking advantage of Dixon’s game-ending knee injury on the ensuing drive.
Trailing just 11-10 entering the second quarter, there was a victorious feeling in the air, and the Wildcats took in a long, deep breath of it.
One of the biggest subplots of the game involved Arizona’s senior cornerback Antoine Cason, who for a year had been making a case for himself as the best defensive back in America. A good showing against Oregon’s potent offense would further solidify his resume and put him in the forefront of the Jim Thorpe Award conversation, especially due to the attention delivered in high definition via the lenses of the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
Cason effectively won the award that night, turning in one of the most memorable performances in school history.
Following Dixon’s injury, inexperienced backup Brady Leaf took over under center, and Arizona’s No. 5 didn’t wait long to exploit Oregon’s weakness. On the second play of the second quarter, Leaf attempted a short pass into the flat. Cason read the play the entire way, stepping in front of the throw and returning it 42 yards for a touchdown. Mayhem ensued in the stands, and it was almost surreal watching the Wildcats’ best player make the game’s biggest play on the biggest stage of his career.
And he wasn’t done.
Following another Tuitama-to-Thomas touchdown, and leading 24-11, the Wildcats forced an Oregon punt with just under six minutes left before halftime. Cason stepped back to receive the kick, which was a low line drive that bounced down at his feet. After initially bobbling the ball, Cason picked it up and sidestepped a defender before dashing around the left side on his way to the house. His second touchdown of the night brought even bigger roars than the first, and the Wildcats enjoyed a comfortable lead for much of the rest of the game. And while Cason’s second score wasn’t a defensive play, it brought even more attention his way, which no doubt helped him win the Thorpe Award just a few weeks later.
Oregon eventually cut the lead to 31-24, but the game was never truly in doubt. With the UA up by 10 with more than three minutes to play, the Zona Zoo once again found its way onto the sidelines well before the final whistle. Following another Nate Ness interception (an unbelievable one-handed grab while falling out of bounds), the Cats settled into a victory formation. Tuitama took one final knee, and the field was immediately engulfed in red.
It was one of the greatest days in this writer’s memory, yet ESPN commentator Chris Fowler probably best summed up the sentiment of the situation, exclaiming as the crowd flooded the field, “Wow!”