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Hansen's Top Teams, No. 7: Wildcats posted best season in program history in 1998

Arizona’s Keith Smith tries for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. UA won to finish 12-1.

As I squeezed to the back of the press box elevator at Arizona Stadium on Oct. 10, 1998, a giddy UCLA assistant football coach announced that “Wildcat fever is over.”

The Bruins had just crushed No. 10 Arizona 52-28 by outscoring the No. 10 Wildcats 21-0 in the fourth quarter.

Going down, right?

Long-suffering Wildcat fans were so dispirited that at the next home game, a mere 39,219 showed up even though Arizona was 6-1 and ranked No. 14 nationally. It was a telling drop from the sellout crowd of 58,738 that showed up for the UA-UCLA game when Rose Bowl chatter engulfed Tucson.

And then everything changed.

Dick Tomey’s Wildcats soon routed No. 12 Oregon 38-3 and reached the final game of the regular season at 10-1, ranked No. 7. In a wild Territorial Cup game, Arizona beat ASU 50-42 and the elevator was suddenly going up, not down.

Arizona's Joe Tafoya tackles Nebraska running back Mic Boettner during the second quarter of the 1998 Holiday Bowl. UA's only loss in 1998 came to UCLA.

UA athletic director Jim Livengood sat in the press box that night with Bud Griest of the Tournament of Roses Committee. All that remained for Arizona to play in the Rose Bowl was to beat ASU and then wait for undefeated and No. 2-ranked UCLA to beat the Miami Hurricanes a week later — a game delayed two months by a September hurricane — and Arizona’s long-awaited dream to play in the Rose Bowl would come true.

Alas, the unranked Hurricanes stunned UCLA 49-45 in a wild comeback in Florida. Instead of playing for the national title against No. 1 Tennessee, UCLA would instead go to the Rose Bowl.

“We’ve still got a chance to have the best season in the history of Arizona football,” Tomey said a day later. “We can go 12-1. There’s so much left to play for.”

Indeed, Arizona was invited to play No. 9 Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and staged a dramatic comeback to beat the Cornhuskers 23-20. The sting of the early-season loss to UCLA — and of UCLA’s loss to Miami — was eased.

Arizona finished No. 4 in the final AP Top 25.

Arizona quarterback Ortege Jenkins flies over the Washington defensive line in the final moments of the game for the winning touchdown in 1998.

“On our winning drive, we were talking in the huddle, saying, ‘This day won’t ever come again,’” said Arizona’s all-conference receiver, Dennis Northcutt. “We didn’t want to have to live to regret it.”

Said an elated Tomey: “We’ve done everything we can do. I think this team is as good as anyone else.”

The 1998 Wildcats were no fluke. They had perhaps the top offensive line in school history: Edwin Mulitalo, Steven Grace, Bruce Wiggins, Yusuf Scott and Manu Savea didn’t miss a start. They created a space for Pac-12 rushing leader Trung Canidate, who set a modern school record with 1,220 rushing yards.

Arizona's Jeremy McDaniel stretches to catch a pass from quarterback Keith Smith against Washington State in 1998.

In the comeback to beat Nebraska, a 68-yard drive to overcome a 20-16 deficit, that line created space for Arizona to successfully run the ball on eight consecutive plays.

The UA defense, one of the best in school history, did the rest. Linebacker Marcus Bell, who had made 21 tackles to beat ASU in the Territorial Cup, made 14 against the Cornhuskers. All-American cornerback Chris McAlister intercepted a pass to stop Nebraska’s final possession. McAlister also blocked a punt.

Bell, McAlister and defensive tackle Daniel Greer were voted to the All-Pac-10 first team. Tomey called Bell, a no-star recruit from tiny St. Johns in northeast Arizona, “the best we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

UA receiver Brad Brennan, a walk-on, caught a touchdown pass against Nebraska. He put the season in perspective, saying: “We begged for respect all year. Now we won’t have to beg anymore.”

Assistant coach Duane Akina is fired-up as he watches his defense execute during practice in 1998.

Tomey put together one of the leading coaching staffs in UA history for the 12-1 season. His defensive coordinator, Rich Ellerson, is among the best in league history. Defensive backs coach Duane Akina was similarly respected. Linebackers coach Bob Wagner had been the head coach at Hawaii, and first-year offensive coordinator Dino Babers, now the head coach at Syracuse, showed that he was a rising star in the coaching profession.

The ’98 Wildcats played two of the most memorable games in school history, and that’s not counting the Territorial Cup or the Holiday Bowl.

Arizona receiver Dennis Northcutt is lifted by teammates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against Northeast Louisiana in 1998.

In late September, Arizona rallied to beat No. 20 Washington in Seattle on quarterback Ortege Jenkins’ unforgettable “Leap By the Lake,” when he somersaulted into the end zone for a 31-28 victory in the final ticks of the game.

And on Halloween, the Wildcats clobbered No. 12 Oregon 38-3, a victory so thorough that Bell said: “I know what we’ve got here. It has all come together.”

The ’98 Wildcats didn’t get to the Rose Bowl — one bad quarter in 13 games cost them that dreamy scenario — but they were clearly the best team in school history.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or On Twitter: @ghansen711

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