5. Arizona (7-5) vs. BYU (10-2, No. 16)
Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl
Dec. 20, 2008
A red-hot second half by Willie Tuitama and the Wildcats catapulted Arizona to its first bowl victory in a decade.
Sitting outside for four hours in freezing temperatures doesn’t exactly make for the ideal Christmastime scenario, yet for the 2008 Arizona football team and its fans, there weren’t many places they’d rather have been than there in Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium on that frigid Saturday night.
The Wildcats were two weeks removed from beating ASU to complete their best season in a decade, and while a 7-5 record is typically nothing worth much in the way of bragging, the program’s first trip to the postseason since 1998 likely evoked grander feelings than those of that night’s opponent, Brigham Young University, because despite their 10-win season, they were making their fourth consecutive appearance in what is typically considered a mid-to-low level bowl game.
Indeed, Arizona was genuinely fired up to play that evening, and the Cats made a multitude of big plays throughout.
After forcing a punt on the Cougars’ opening drive, the UA made the game’s first major statement – a 71-yard post pass from Willie Tuitama to Terrell Turner, a third-and-long conversion that set up Nic Grigsby’s one-yard touchdown run on the next play. Arizona added a field goal in the second quarter, though BYU finally answered with a score of its own to keep it close at half, 10-7.
Tuitama fumbled on the first play of the third quarter, giving the Cougars a short field, and quarterback Max Hall completed a one-yard pass for a touchdown six plays later, giving BYU its first lead.
The lead turned out to be the Cougars’ last.
After trading punts, Arizona scored on a quick, two-play drive, which ended with Delashaun Dean’s 37-yard catch for a score to put Arizona up 17-14. BYU’s Justin Sorensen missed a 53-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, leaving the Wildcats in good field position. The Wildcats moved the ball to the Cougar 24, and on third-and-five, ran a play action pass to a wide-open H-back, Chris Gronkowski, for a touchdown. The third quarter ended with the Cats in control, and Tuitama’s six-yard rushing score with six minutes left put the game out of reach at 31-14.
As they had grown accustomed to with a number of big wins over the previous four seasons, the UA faithful once again stormed the field, in what was surely one of the few such occurrences in bowl game history. Arizona’s eighth win marked something unseen for so long, it simply felt right to stand on that field and soak up the emotion as red and blue confetti rained down from the sky. And it was a worthwhile experience, as that 31-21 triumph remains Arizona’s lone bowl victory in the past 13 years.
There are two additional things worth noting from that game. First, it was the last time the Wildcats’ sophomore phenom tight end, Rob Gronkowski, would see the field in an Arizona uniform. ‘Gronk’ caught four balls for 27 yards that night, but injured his back in the offseason, missing all of 2009 before deciding to turn pro.
Secondly, with 29 seconds left and the Wildcats in victory formation, Tuitama hit Mike Thomas on a five-yard swing pass, giving Thomas the all-time Pac-10 career receptions record. It was a sweet and fitting moment for the two seniors, who had started since their freshman years and had helped rebuild the Arizona program, setting multiple school records in the process.
The champagne at Mandalay Bay that night after the game has yet to be rivaled.
Eric W. Kay is a regular contributor to Wildcat Sports Report. Follow the Wildcats year-round on WildcatSportsReport.com.