A Big Game worth its capital letters

2009-11-13T00:00:00Z A Big Game worth its capital letters Ryan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 13, 2009 12:00 am  • 

ARIZONA FOOTBALL

Arizona Wildcats safety Cam Nelson has played in 45 games since coming to the UA in 2006. Nelson has battled for postseason berths and in a bowl game, and has trekked to Sin City, Death Valley, Strawberry Canyon and the Palouse.

Saturday's game at Cal may top them all.

For the first time in the Mike Stoops era, the 18th-ranked Wildcats (6-2 overall, 4-1 Pac-10) will play a conference game with serious Rose Bowl implications. The Wildcats can win their first outright Pac-10 championship by defeating the Golden Bears in Berkeley, Calif., and toppling Oregon, Arizona State and USC in their final three weeks.

Cal is just the beginning, but a crucial one.

"Every one's a big one, but this is a pretty big one," Nelson said. "We've never been in this position before - bowl-eligible this early with so much at stake."

A win over the Golden Bears would undoubtedly raise Arizona from No. 17 in the Bowl Championship Series standings to something higher. It would set up a must-see showdown with conference-leading Oregon next week.

And it would put the Wildcats back in the national consciousness for the first time since 1998.

"We haven't been in this position in many years, so we want to go capitalize on the opportunity we have," wide receiver Delashaun Dean said. "We haven't had a lot of them."

In fact, the most important wins of the Mike Stoops era can be counted on one hand. Here's a look at our top five:

Date: Dec. 6, 2008

What went down: Arizona scored three third-quarter touchdowns to defeat rival Arizona State 31-10 at Arizona Stadium. The win improved Arizona to 7-5 and earned the Wildcats an invitation to the Las Vegas Bowl. Stoops' first win over the Sun Devils since 2004 remains a defining moment in program history.

Why it mattered: The win over the Sun Devils vaulted the Wildcats into the Las Vegas Bowl and put into motion a contract extension for Stoops. Within a month, the Wildcats' coach was promised a three-year deal and a sizable raise. Would that have happened with a berth in the Hawaii Bowl? We'll never know.

Said Stoops: "There are defining moments in all seasons, and lifetimes, and programs, and this was a very defining moment for us. We tried not to make it that way, but - let's face it - it was. We tried to stay calm, cool and collected, but it got pretty hot under the collar."

Date: Dec. 20, 2008

What went down: Quarterback Willie Tuitama threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a score as Arizona defeated BYU 31-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl. Tuitama completed 24 of 35 passes, though his final one might have been the most important. A pass to Mike Thomas in the final seconds made the Wildcats' receiver the Pac-10's all-time leader in catches.

Why it mattered: The win over a tough BYU team showed that Arizona belonged among the country's best teams.

Said Stoops: "This was a culmination of five years of perseverance and toughness in our program that a lot of kids in our program had to endure. To see it all come together tonight is special."

Date: Oct. 27, 2007

What went down: Thomas caught a 27-yard touchdown pass with 2 minutes 2 seconds remaining in the game to give Arizona an improbable 48-41 win over Washington in Seattle. The Wildcats trailed by 15 points in the fourth quarter before rallying for the win; Tuitama finished with 510 passing yards, a school record.

Why it mattered: The victory likely saved Stoops' job. New UA president Robert Shelton made the trip with the team so he could observe the program in action. The prez came away happy.

Said Stoops: "God knows we've been through enough. There have been a lot of games when we felt we outplayed people and didn't win. It's a crazy game, but the kids did what they had to do today."

Date: Nov. 15, 2007

What went down: Arizona took advantage of a first-quarter injury to Heisman Trophy favorite Dennis Dixon and stunned No. 2 Oregon 34-24 at Arizona Stadium.

Why it mattered: A win over a well-regarded team in a game shown live on ESPN showed the Wildcats could play with anybody in the country. The victory was Arizona's first against a top-5 team since 1992.

Said Stoops: "This is a good feeling."

Date: Nov. 5, 2005

What went down: Buoyed by tailback Mike Bell and Tuitama, the Wildcats thumped No. 7 UCLA 52-14 at a raucous Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats led 21-0 after one quarter and 31-7 at the half on the way to a breakthrough win.

Why it mattered: The blowout win didn't really matter - in fact, it probably shouldn't be considered "important" at all. But the homecoming victory was the first thumping of the Stoops era, a feel-good, shock-the-world game that set the tone for future upsets.

Said Stoops: "I don't know if I ever felt comfortable. When we got to 45, I breathed a little bit."

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