Greg Hansen: '68 game puts bowl comeback in context

2012-12-20T00:00:00Z 2012-12-21T07:05:05Z Greg Hansen: '68 game puts bowl comeback in contextGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 20, 2012 12:00 am  • 

On the morning of Nov. 17, 1968, Tucsonans awoke to this newspaper headline:

Miraculous Wildcats Battle Back in Snow;

Cats, Coaches Left in Total Disbelief

The headline was accompanied by a black and white image of UA defensive coordinator Sharkey Price and several Wildcat players standing on the sidelines, covered with snow.

It had all the elements of an intrepid, almost mythic struggle: a comeback in a snowstorm to preserve a march to an 8-1 record and what then appeared would be the greatest season in school history.

A smaller headline declared Most Miraculous Comeback In 69 Years of Wildcat Football

.

But sometimes, especially if it was 44 years ago, after the eyewitnesses scatter and the film is lost, the excitement expires.

There was no television coverage of Arizona's astonishing 16-15 victory over Utah and thus the historical accounts did not long survive. The you-had-to-be-there element was lost more than a generation ago.

There was no one to step forward when, five days ago, Arizona scored two touchdowns in 27 seconds, leaving Nevada dumbstruck and beaten 49-48 in the New Mexico Bowl. There was no one to say "don't be silly, that '68 game in Salt Lake City can't be surpassed."

Can it? Was it?

The UA's unofficial sports historian, Jon Alquist, who has almost instant recall of every Wildcat sports event, big and small, over 55 years, could not remember the '68 game.

He produced documentation of the classic comebacks the 8-1-1 Arizona team of 1961 produced to shock Wyoming and New Mexico. But the '68 Miracle in the Snow?

"Can't remember it at all," Alquist said. "I'm disappointed."

One suspects that Arizona's fearless victory in Salt Lake City lost a bit of mystique when, two weeks later, ranked No. 19, the Wildcats were wrecked by Arizona State in the infamous "Ultimatum Bowl" 30-7 before a record Tucson crowd of 41,350.

By comparison, the UA's bombshell of a comeback in Albuquerque, the season's final game, will remain unspoiled and surely has more shelf life. Who didn't watch it, or hasn't seen it, on ESPN? Who won't watch it again on DVD or whatever device is available in 2025 or 2045?

The epic '68 game, which deserves a place in stained glass, is buried in time.

Here's how it went down:

Utah led 15-0 with 13:36 remaining. The conditions at Ute Stadium were such that Arizona quarterback Mark Driscoll couldn't effectively throw a pass. His hands were too cold. That's when backup QB Bruce Lee was summoned.

Lee almost immediately threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Ron Gardin, making the comeback manageable. A two-point conversion attempt failed as the snow intensified and temperatures dropped into the 20s. Statisticians in the press box were estimating yardage totals because they had difficulty seeing the field.

The Utes, stubborn, didn't yield the way Nevada did in Albuquerque.

The next two UA possessions fizzled, one on an interception, the next on a failed fourth-down pass. Then came the defensive game-changer: UA linebacker Tom Cooley

stole the ball from the cold hands of Utes QB Ray Groth. Three minutes remained.

The Wildcats scored at 1:58 on a pass to Ted Sherwood. Trailing 15-13, Arizona unsuccessfully attempted an onside kick.

Coach Darrell Mudra used all of Arizona's timeouts when Utah gained possession. Strangely, Utah punted on third down, choosing to play defense rather than risk a turnover.

With 1:36 remaining and no timeouts, Arizona was able to cover 66 yards in 11 plays. Twice, Lee connected on third-down passes to move the chains. But when Lee was sacked at Utah's 20 with 34 seconds to play, clock ticking, the rally seemed at an end.

"The lights on the scoreboard were obscured by the snow," UA kicker Steve Hurley said. "And you couldn't see the yard markers."

Unaccountably, Mudra called for a time-consuming run, by Dan Hustead, who got to the Utah 10 with about 10 seconds left. The ball was in closer field goal range, but Hurley and the kicking team, desperate, raced onto the field, fearing the clock would expire.

Hurley made the kick from 27 yards. Arizona 16, Utah 15.

"Boy, that's unbelievable," Mudra said. "That's got to be the damndest miracle. I tell you what, somebody has to be looking over us. That has to be the greatest comeback victory I've ever seen - the most fantastic victory I've ever had."

Utah coach Bill Meek

, who felt a lot like Nevada's Chris Ault

felt five days ago, saw his team's season dissolve. Utah finished 3-7.

"It was absolutely ridiculous to lose like that," he said. "We play great ball, and then we lose in the last three seconds. It's absolutely ridiculous."

Ridiculous?

Four years later, on the same field, in another snowstorm, Arizona led the Utes 27-0 in the fourth quarter. The Utes scored four touchdowns and won 28-27. It remains the worst collapse in Arizona football history.

So don't say you haven't been warned. Arizona is to play Nevada again, in 2014 and 2015.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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