Arizona System Is a Big Winner
Maybe the best tackle, and surely the most sincere, came after the final gun, with the bands playing and the Arizona Wildcats dancing their way to a higher place.
At midfield, after fifth-ranked Arizona’s 23-20 Holiday Bowl victory over defending co-national champion Nebraska, after Keith Smith was given the game’s offensive MVP trophy and Ortege Jenkins screamed his support for the choice, Arizona’s two quarterbacks met.
Then they embraced tightly, and swung each other in a 20-yard loop, full circle.
Minutes later, both wiped away traces of tears.
“This trophy is his as well as mine,” said Smith, who played most of the game--while Jenkins watched from the sideline--and led the Wildcats on their game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. “We went through this together, and we went through a lot.
“This trophy is for the whole year of doing this. People said the two-quarterback system wouldn’t work, but we made it work.”
Said Jenkins, who played only in a struggling second quarter: “This tandem thing works for us. And it’s always going to work. Whoever does it, that’s both of us out there.”
Smith and Jenkins--and many other key players--will be back at Arizona next season, giving the Wildcats every reason to soak in this victory and speak about a national-title run in 1999.
“This is already the beginning of a new season,” said All-American senior cornerback Chris McAlister, who had two interceptions, blocked a field goal and had a punt-return touchdown called back because of a penalty. “And we’re leaving those guys something to shoot for.”
Something very large to shoot at--Arizona’s 12 victories this season, against only one defeat (to UCLA), is a school record.
“Twelve means that nobody in the country has more [victories],” Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said.
The hard-hitting victory, against such a name-brand opponent, also helped stem the tide against a Pacific 10 Conference bowl collapse, begun when Washington and Oregon were torched on Christmas.
Said running back Kelvin Eafon, who scored the game-winner from one yard out: “We came out on in front of a national audience and showed we can play with anybody in the country.
“Nebraska’s the defending national champion, and even though they’re not the same team they were last year, they’re still a great team. And we proved that we belong in the elite by beating them.”
In Frank Solich’s first coaching season, 15th-ranked Nebraska fell to 9-4, its first four-defeat season since 1968.
It was not a pretty Holiday Bowl--full of fumbles, ill-timed penalties and sluggish runs to nowhere before 65,354. The two run-oriented teams never got their rushing attacks going.
Nebraska, averaging more than 250 yards on the ground this season, netted only 87 rush yards. Arizona had only 107.
“They blitzed us a lot to shut down our running game, which opened up the passing game for us,” Solich said. “And we, unfortunately, did not capitalize on it.”
Arizona did not allow a Cornhusker running back to break a run longer than 17 yards, and that was by fullback Joel Makovicka.
In the first half alone, there were a combined five field goals, four lost fumbles, one field goal blocked, two touchdowns called back by penalty and only one touchdown.
Then came the fourth quarter, when the two teams traded the lead three times.
After a Smith-to-Brad Brennan touchdown pass gave Arizona a 16-13 lead early in the fourth, Nebraska edged back out in front on Eric Crouch’s four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tracey Wistrom.
But the Wildcats answered with a nine-play, 68-yard drive, keyed by Smith runs of 20, 8 and 8 yards to set up Eafon’s one-yard touchdown plunge with 6:08 left in the game.
“Keith made some terrific plays and our defense played terrific,” Tomey said. “We wanted to move the ball on the ground, and we did it. And we wanted to rush their passer, and we did that.”
McAlister’s second interception of the game, near the goal line with 3:10 remaining, sealed the win and left Tomey exulting on the field, calling this one of his sweetest victories.
“To win against the defending national champion when you’re behind in the fourth quarter,” Tomey said, “that just feels good.”
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