When the start time for Saturday’s showdown between Arizona and No. 10 USC was announced 10 days ago, it immediately evoked memories of the last time the UA topped the Trojans in Tucson – when the Cats’ top-notch running back, dual-threat quarterback, and wealth of talented stars wowed the 51,418 onlookers with big plays, while outlasting the 22nd-ranked Men of Troy, 31-24.
Defensive back Jourdon Grandon is one of Arizona's playmakers.
That day – Oct. 9, 1999 – featured a typical warm fall afternoon in Tucson, when a 12:30 p.m. kickoff ensured the game would take place under immaculately clear blue skies, as Mother Nature shined her bright spotlight on Arizona Stadium for a three-plus hour battle, one that wasn’t decided until the furious final minutes.
The old north end zone’s aluminum bleachers rumbled constantly that afternoon – sometimes from delight, sometimes from dismay – as each team threw heavy blows, both on offense and defense, while also swapping deflating turnovers.
Arizona quarterback Keith Smith opened the scoring with a 57-yard first quarter run, and he later added a 17-yard touchdown toss to All-American Dennis Northcutt to tie the game at 17, late in the third quarter.
USC answered the UA signal-caller’s early score when Zeke Moreno sacked Smith on the fourth play of the second quarter, jarring the ball loose, and Trojans cornerback Antuan Simmons returned it 44 yards to the house to even the game.
It wouldn’t be the last such play on that picturesque, drama-filled afternoon, as Arizona looked to tally just its fifth all-time win against the team from Los Angeles.
The Cats controlled the football for over 35 minutes that day, largely in part to senior tailback Trung Canidate’s 194 rushing yards on 31 attempts. The two-time All-Pac 10 senior would set Arizona career and single season rushing records that season, and his talents were on full display against SC as he rushed for over six yards a carry, including the go-ahead 11-yard sprint to give the UA the lead for good with less than 12 minutes to play.
But the game was still far from over.
The shadows cast by the stadium’s west side skyboxes began creeping onto the field when, with 3:02 remaining to play, and trailing 24-17, Trojan QB Mike Van Raaphorst took the ball at the USC 12-yard line with one final chance to knot the score. After quickly moving the ball to the 35, however, Van Raaphorst was sacked for the seventh time on the day, coughing up the ball in the process. UA corner Kelvin Hunter scooped it up and sped to paydirt, sealing the Arizona victory.
USC responded with a late score, but their ensuing onside kick attempt skipped helplessly out of bounds.
The triumph was just one in a long line of memorable afternoon upset victories for the Wildcats over the past two decades. Eighty-four-year-old Arizona Stadium has witnessed such unexpected sun-covered successes as those over No. 1 Washington in 1992, No. 7 UCLA in 2005, and No. 8 Cal in 2006, among others. Something special seems to hang in the air when top-ranked opponents arrive in the Old Pueblo, and this week’s rare daylight matchup with the Trojans has all the makings of another thriller.
Records and reputations alone would point to USC having the obvious edge, and yet, there are plenty of reasons to believe the 4-3 Wildcats will celebrate as the sun sets on Saturday.
First off, Arizona has played far better competition thus far. The Trojans’ opponents are a combined 18-31 in 2012, and the best team they’ve faced (and the only one with a non-losing record) was No. 19 Stanford, a team that handed Troy it’s lone defeat this year.
Conversely, the Cats have squared off with overwhelmingly worthy foes this season.
Toledo is 7-1, and hasn’t lost since falling to Arizona in overtime in week one. Oregon and Oregon State are a combined 13-0. Stanford rallied late at home to sneak past the Wildcats in overtime, and Oklahoma State, whose then-No. 18 Cowboys were lit up by the Cats in the season’s second week, are a close call against Texas away from being 5-1 and in the top 15.
Of all of Arizona’s seven opponents, only Oregon managed to slow down the UA offense with any regularity, as the Cats inexplicably left six red zone scoring opportunities on the field in Eugene. Otherwise, head coach Rich Rodriguez’s attack has been largely unstoppable, and only appears to be getting better as the season wears on.
USC has been solid against the run, but mediocre against the pass this fall, and, like Washington last week, the Trojans have yet to face an offense that puts up nearly 550 yards and 40 points every time it takes the field.
The team the Trojans trampled 50-6 last week, Colorado, also plays an interesting role in this potentially pivotal Pac-12 South division meeting. The Buffaloes are a meager 1-6, and have no hopes of competing for anything other than pride in 2012. However, it is interesting to note that of the five Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I) teams that CU played prior to USC, exactly zero of them went on to win the following week.
Unexplainable as it may seem, perhaps a cakewalk past the hapless team from Boulder relaxes the victors into a sleepy state of complacency, only to be rudely awakened when better competition comes knocking a week later.
The Trojans already suffered one surprising loss this season, and they’ll have to avoid another on Saturday if they aim to find their way back into the national title conversation. USC heads home to face No. 2 Oregon next week, and winning that game could propel the Men of Troy back into the thick of the BCS standings, while also re-declaring quarterback Matt Barkley’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy.
ESPN reporter Shelley Smith reminded the nation of the upcoming clash in the Coliseum during her preview of Saturday’s game, and yet, if that is where the Tojans’ minds are when they line up with the Wildcats this weekend, they’ll almost certainly wind up Colorado Curse victim No. 6.
Make no mistake, USC presents an incredible challenge for the UA, namely Jeff Casteel’s maligned defense, which ranks 85th in the nation in points allowed, at just over 30 per game. The Trojans, naturally, will look to exploit that weakness, and Barkley will surely put up some impressive numbers, especially with receivers Marquis Lee and Robert Woods – who have a combined 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns – repeatedly testing the Wildcats’ oft-shaky secondary.
Then again, the Cats showed some strides in last week’s win, holding the Huskies to just 17 points, and pitching a shutout in the second half. Sophomore safeties Jourdon Grandon and Tra’Mayne Bondurant both snagged interceptions in the victory, and their safety-turned-linebacker counterpart, Marquis Flowers, made perhaps the most impressive defensive play on the team this fall.
Flowers blitzed off the left side of the UW line as QB Keith Price dropped back to throw, but Price sensed Flowers’ presence and sprinted to the far left sideline, negating the angle of Flowers’ attack. However, the junior from Phoenix quickly changed direction and continued his blazing pursuit, finally catching Price from behind for the sack, knocking the ball loose with his right hand in the process.
Lineman Dan Pettinato recovered, and the Cats regained a momentum they would never lose, as they cruised on to a 35-point victory.
Arizona will need to produce a play or two like that on Saturday to tip the scales their way, and all of the above suggests this game could be very close. And after surviving a blowout defeat, followed by two excruciating last-minute losses, yet still bouncing back the way they did last week, it appears the Cats are poised to be the team that wins the close one, this time around.
As for those 1999 Wildcats, despite opening the season ranked No. 4 in the nation, they finished a disappointing 6-6, and Canidate, in spite of his UA record 1,602 yards on the year, missed the opportunity to close his college career competing in a bowl game.
The next great UA tailback took 13 years to arrive, but he’s just in time for another toppling of the Trojans in Tucson, one that will go a long way toward getting Ka’Deem Carey and his teammates into the post season.
The Cats may drop another game or two the rest of the way, but this week, they have every reason to win. And so, they will.
Arizona 43, USC 40, as the Red and Blue relishes in another afternoon delight in the desert.
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