The season-opener came down to one play, with Washington State preserving a 37-34 victory by stopping UCLA on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line.
At USC, the Cougars found themselves in a tie game with 5 minutes left. Receiver Kevin McKenzie turned a short gain into a 51-yard, game-winning touchdown.
At Illinois, WSU awoke in time to score 21 consecutive points, breaking open a game that had been tied at 14 entering the fourth quarter.
At Oregon, the Cougars were clinging to a 21-13 lead with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter. An 11-play drive, lasting nearly 5 minutes, led to the clinching field goal.
“In the close games, when they’ve needed to make a play, they’ve made one,” Arizona coach Dick Tomey said this week.
“When we were 10-2 in ‘93, that’s basically what we did.
“We had some real close games - one of them was Washington State (a 9-6 Arizona win) - but when we needed to make a play, we made it.”
If history is a reliable indicator, today’s Pacific-10 Conference game between the Cougars and Wildcats will also come down to a few key plays. Three of the last five in the series have been decided by a field goal.
“Every one of those games has been an absolute brawl,” Tomey said.
Arizona has won four straight against WSU and should be considered dangerous despite its 3-4 record.
As usual, the Wildcats have talent on defense, although they have surrendered far too many big plays. The Arizona offense, led by surprising freshman quarterback Ortege Jenkins, has been more consistent of late.
Perhaps most importantly, Arizona is desperate to redeem itself after last week’s 58-28 loss to Washington.
“I’m going to be ready for the Arizona team that beat Stanford two weeks ago, not the Arizona team that lost to Washington,” WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf said.
Leaf, for one, hasn’t forgotten last year’s 36-24 loss in Tucson. The Cougars trailed 27-20 in the fourth quarter and were at the Arizona 11-yard-line when linebacker Chester Burnett recovered a WSU fumble.
“That was the most physical battle I’ve ever been through,” Leaf said.
If the Cougars are to finally break through against Arizona, Leaf figures to play a prominent role. Through six games, the junior has thrown for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns while completing 57.1 percent of his passes.
“Leaf is being a great leader out there,” Burnett said. “He’s making plays when it counts. They’ve been in some tough games, and they just come out on top.”
A victory today would give WSU its first 7-0 start since 1930, the last year the Cougars went to the Rose Bowl. A seventh win might also lock up WSU’s first postseason berth since 1994.
“There are so many reasons to win this football game,” coach Mike Price stressed. “There’s no chance of us not being ready for this game.”
Burnett is particularly impressed with Leaf’s ability to shake off defenders and avoid sacks. “He’s throwing off linemen, not just defensive backs, and still completing passes downfield,” Burnett said. “And if he has time, he’ll pick you apart.”
WSU did not release official ticket numbers, but today’s game is not expected to sell out. Since Martin Stadium was expanded in 1979, only four games that were not Apple Cups have sold out. The most recent nonApple Cup sellout came on Oct. 15, 1994, when Arizona escaped with a 10-7 victory.
Arizona quarterback Keith Smith dazzled WSU last year and was perhaps the nation’s most impressive freshman. But Smith struggled early this season and may have lost his job for good. Jenkins has thrown for nine touchdowns and two interceptions since Smith was sidelined by a shoulder injury Sept. 27 at UCLA.
ESPN recently ranked the nation’s 60 best college players who are expected to enter the NFL draft. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson was listed first. Leaf was sixth, one spot behind Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning. WSU defensive linemen Leon Bender (23rd) and Dorian Boose (39th) were also listed.
Bender remains a popular interview, as one Tucson newspaper can attest. The Arizona Daily Star, which features a Leon Bender Quote of the Week, might consider putting the WSU tackle on speed-dial. Bender grew up in San Diego, Calif., as did Arizona tackle Joe Salave’a, prompting Bender to tell the paper, “My man, Joe Salave’a, from 619 (San Diego’s area code). He represents weekly. Weekly. I’m trying to keep up with big Joe. He’s ballin’. He’s killing everybody.” Salave’a has seven sacks, while Bender has broken up six passes.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Cougars vs. Arizona
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