Ruining the Season: An Arizona Specialty

Nathan Roholt FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

“Bear Down.” It is the official motto of the University of Arizona, a slogan based on a Gipper-ish legend of a former player’s message to his team. Lying in his hospital bed in 1926, starting quarterback John “Button” Salmon told coach Pop McKale (yes, that McKale) on his final hospital visit to Salmon, “…Tell the team to bear down.” The motto has become the school’s rallying cry every since, most visibly as a 70-yard stenciling sprawled out across the middle of Arizona’s playing surface.

Two Saturdays ago, the phrase “Bear Down” could have served as an apt description of emotionally crumpled mass that was Oski, or any other Cal fan, after the Wildcats managed to erase a 15-point Cal lead with less than four minutes left by scoring 19 straight, part of 36 points Arizona poured on in the fourth quarter. The final six points were the most heartbreaking for Cal fans, as Arizona’s Austin Hill managed to catch a 50-yard pass on the game’s final play to steal victory from the Bears.

Had the game’s final pass fallen to the turf, it would have ended Cal’s 15-game conference losing streak, dating back nearly two years. It would have given some much needed momentum to a program trying to build itself back in its second year under new coach Sonny Dykes. While “Bear Down” might be the traditional motto, the famous line from Fight Club seems to better suit the Arizona program: “I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

That gutpunch of a loss from an underwhelming Arizona squad may be a recent revelation to Cal fans, but it’s an all-too-familiar story line for Oregon fans.

Oregon's 2013 game against Arizona was a difficult one for the Ducks.

Oregon’s 2013 game against Arizona was a difficult one for the Ducks.

Oregon’s loss in 2013 is most notable for shattering a certain confidence of victory Duck fans possessed — in that the Ducks would always prevail against all but the very best teams. It was a confidence that was unrealistic, given how hard it is to win college football, but there was another narrative that got lost amidst that game.

That narrative would be the one where in recent seasons, if Oregon has a loss that is particularly disastrous to a clearly inferior team, it always seems to come at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats. The loss will be scarring largely for its combination of unfathomability (usually the Arizona team in question is one of the five-to-seven wins variety) and the disastrous (the play in the game itself is lacking in, shall we say, fluidity), and the post-game discussion centered around the topic of “what’s wrong with the Ducks?”

De'Anthony Thomas carries against Arizona in 2013.

De’Anthony Thomas carries against Arizona in 2013.

All those elements were in play in last year’s game against Arizona, a 26-point loss to the Wildcats, an outcome no one expected after what occurred the previous Saturday. USC’s upset of Stanford had put Oregon in the driver’s seat for the Pac-12 North title, while Arizona had lost at home to Washington State. Few expected Arizona to turn in the game they did, playing inspired football to defeat the Ducks a week after lackluster play against the Cougars. While Arizona had trouble finding the energy against Washington State, when given a chance to ruin a season for its opponent, especially if that opponent is Oregon, the Wildcats seem to find their motivation.

The 26 point loss was Oregon’s worst in six years, and its worst loss to an unranked team since…a 37-10 loss in to Wildcats in Autzen Stadium in 2006. That victory was noteworthy for allegedly saving then-head coach Mike Stoops’ job by getting Arizona bowl eligible. Of course, the Wildcats didn’t do anything with that bowl eligibility. They stayed home for the postseason. The goal was to ruin something for their opponent — which they did, as Oregon didn’t win a game the rest of the season — rather than make productive use out of their own achievement.

Of course, playing inspired football is the most civilized form of ruination by the Wildcats. Historically, Arizona has taken much greater pride in injuring Oregon quarterbacks, as the ever-classy Arizona fan base takes delight in, as evidenced by this sign from Tucson’s hosting of ESPN’s College GameDay back in 2009:

All the classiness of Tucson encapsulated in a single sign.

All the classiness of Arizona fans explained in a single sign.

Both injuries referenced in that sign, Kellen Clemens in 2005 and Dennis Dixon in 2007, had a profound effect on those seasons, derailing national championship hopes for the Ducks in the process. As for those Wildcat teams that caused those injuries, they went 3-8 and 5-7 respectively. If you can’t win, destroy something beautiful.

In fact, Arizona has been so injury-minded towards the Ducks that Oregon has not had a senior quarterback finish a game in Tucson healthy since Joey Harrington in 2001. Of course, that’s not for a lack of trying on Arizona’s part, as evidenced by this late hit in that game:

There’s only one way to get a reputation as a team that ruins games and seasons, and that comes in the form of being a team that is not very good. Winning teams and championship teams ruin games and seasons for their opponents all the time; the difference is their destruction is done on the path to achievement. Arizona has no achievement to speak of; they are the only team from the previous Pac-10 to have never played in a Rose Bowl. Even the conference’s newest members, Colorado and Utah have played in a BCS bowl this century, something the Wildcats have not. They may try to foster a reputation as a sleeping giant in Tucson, but so far, Arizona’s program is more like Iowa State’s with better weather.

Arizona’s opportunities at the top of the conference have been limited in recent year, but a funny thing happens when those chances come along. When it has had a legitimate shots at success, certain “karmic regressions to the mean” have taken place, and those similarly ruined opportunities have come at the hands of the Ducks.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu scores against Arizona in 2012.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu scores against Arizona in 2012.

Prior to Arizona’s last visit to Eugene in 2012, the Wildcats were riding high: 3-0 and ranked 22nd, largely on the backs of a 59-38 win over an Oklahoma State team that had finished the previous season ranked third in the country. Arizona fans were abuzz that new coach Rich Rodriguez had restored a team that had fired previous coach Mike Stoops and went 4-8 the previous season, looking like a possible conference, or at the very least, divisional dark horse.

Then the Wildcats got shut out against the Ducks, failing to score on each of their seven red zone trips.

Still, that was nothing compared to 2009. Had Arizona won, they would have gone to their first Rose Bowl in school history. With 30 seconds remaining and a seven-point lead, the student section felt secure enough to begin leaping the wall in preparation for storming the field:

And then, this happened…

Ed Dickson ties the game at 31-31 in 2009.

Ed Dickson ties the game at 31-31 in 2009.

…followed by this

Jeremiah Masoli scores the game winning touchdown against Arizona in 2009.

Jeremiah Masoli scored the game-winning touchdown against Arizona in 2009.

…and with that the sentence, “Arizona has never been to a Rose Bowl” remains in the conference’s lexicon.

Which brings us to Thursday’s game. That miracle catch by Austin Hill preserved a perfect season by the Wildcats, and after Saturday only three undefeated teams remain in the Pac-12. Two of them play each other in Autzen Stadium Thursday night. One of those teams will ruin the other’s season. Given the recent history of this matchup, a loss for one of these teams had to come at the hands of the other. Which team will it be? We’ll find out Thursday night.

Top image from video.

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