Hansen's Top Teams, No. 29: Cats capped '93 season with 'biggest win Arizona has ever had'

tucson.com 9 days ago
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Arizona defensive end Tedy Bruschi downs USC quarterback Rob Johnson the Wildcats’ 38-7 win in 1993. “You dream about these kind of games,” offensive coordinator Duane Akina said.

In the days leading up to Arizona’s nationally-televised game against USC on a sunny October afternoon, 1993, Trojans coach John Robinson was quoted as saying: “It’s not acceptable for USC to be an underdog.”

The Trojans were 2-point underdogs that day at Arizona Stadium when a capacity crowd of 58,065 filled every seat. Underdogs? Arizona won with such force, 38-7, that UA offensive coordinator Duane Akina said, “you dream about these kind of games.”

The ’93 Wildcats were introduced to the nation as “Desert Swarm,” leading the NCAA in rushing defense, allowing a hard-to-believe 30.1 yards per game.

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Quarterback Dan White led the Wildcats to a home win over USC and a Fiesta Bowl victory over the highly touted Miami Hurricanes.

What looked like a dream season — Arizona went 7-0 and climbed to No. 7 in the AP poll, the greatest start in school history, then or now — didn’t go as planned.

In Game 8, at UCLA, UA quarterback Dan White and his backup, Brady Batten, both were injured, forcing walk-on Ryan Hesson of Sahuaro High School to play the final 2 ½ quarters. The dream was rudely interrupted as the Bruins won 37-17.

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Two weeks later, blowing a 20-0 halftime lead, Arizona lost at Cal on a freak, late-game tipped pass the Bears returned for a touchdown, to win 24-20. It eliminated the 8-2 Wildcats from the Rose Bowl.

About 20 minutes after the game, walking up stairs to his team’s locker room, UA coach Dick Tomey turned to me and pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He opened the wallet, which was about an inch thick.

“I’m as flat as this wallet,” he said.

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What looked to be the best season in school history had gone bust at the worst possible time. Cal had lost four consecutive games and critics blamed Tomey for taking his pedal off the gas in the second half, protecting a lead, allowing the Golden Bears to come back.

Now, 29 years later, the perspective is a bit different. Arizona lost to Cal — its best chance ever to go to the Rose Bowl — because it played the second half without four injured starters: safety Brandon Sanders, defensive tackle Jim Hoffman, defensive end Jimmie Hopkins and All-Pac-10 guard Warner Smith.

Tedy Bruschi, who tied the NCAA record with 19 sacks that season, hobbled to the team bus.

“I was banged up all day,” he told me. “But I couldn’t take myself out because we had so many other guys hurt worse than I was.”

The hurt soon vanished.

A week later, before a sellout crowd of 73,185 at Sun Devil Stadium, the Wildcats routed ASU 34-20 to finish 9-2 in the regular season and climb back to No. 16 in the AP poll. A few days later, they were invited to the Fiesta Bowl against No. 10 Miami, then the top program in college football.

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UA coach Dick Tomey enjoys the aftermath of the Wildcats' 29-0 victory of the Wildcats' win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day 1994. UA finished the 1993 season ranked No. 10 in the nation.

There would be no Rose Bowl. but the Wildcats tied for first place in the Pac-10, squared at 6-2 with USC and UCLA for first place. Alas, UCLA won the tiebreaker given its mid-October victory over the QB-thin Wildcats.

If anything could ease the sting of getting so close to the Rose Bowl, it was blowing out Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Wildcats were so dominant that day, outgaining the Hurricanes 409-182, that the esteemed Jim Young, Arizona’s head coach in the mid-1970s during a period he coached the Wildcats to back-to-back 9-2 seasons, called it a historic season.

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UA wideout Troy Dickey catches a touchdown pass in the Wildcats’ walkover win over USC in 1993.

Young, who had retired as Army’s head coach and returned to Tucson to be Tomey’s offensive line coach from 1992-94, told me in the happy locker room that “it’s the biggest win Arizona has ever had. To beat a team of that stature, and to beat them so thoroughly, is about as good as it gets.”

Arizona finished 10-2 and ranked No. 10 in the AP poll.

Looking back, the only thing that kept Arizona from the Rose Bowl was a late fourth-quarter pass to Terry Vaughn that he appeared to catch, only to lose his grip on the ball. It bounced directly into the hands of Cal safety Eric Zomalt, who ran 29 yards, unopposed, for a touchdown that kept Arizona from the Rose Bowl.

I was standing on the 30-yard line at that moment, maybe 10 yards from Bruschi. I asked him about it after the game. “It was a helpless feeling,” he said. “I was standing right there. I wanted to run out and tackle him.”

It remains the most damaging play in UA football history. One dropped pass at the wrong place and the wrong time.