Arizona, Arizona State Must Shake Ghosts of the Past


The inaugural Pac-12 South race is wide open. While Stanford and Oregon figure to be far ahead of the North pack, seemingly anyone can win the other division (except USC for obvious reasons, and sorry Colorado, but not you either). Arizona and Arizona State have the personnel most capable of earning the division’s first championship game bid. But that doesn’t mean a very-close-behind Utah team won’t win it. Ute supporters should take solace in their program’s southern neighbors’ proven inability to seal the deal when its most needed.

Baseball fans talk of the Curse of the Bambino, or the old billy goat. Tucson and Tempe aren’t far from Benson and its haunted Copper Queen Hotel; perhaps Arizona residents should inspect the Territorial Cup for ghostly spirits haunting it, because something seems to be keeping these teams from reaching their full potential.

Mike Stoops has been a blessing to Wildcat football. There are the impatient lot among Wildcat backers who expected a Rose Bowl by now — and in 2009, the Wildcats were oh-so-close. Considering what Stoops inherited, a program barely deserving FBS status, his three consecutive bowls speak volumes. This season’s team is flying under the radar, picked fourth or fifth in the division in most publications. But the team received some good news yesterday with confirmation star receiver Juron Criner would be in the mix, buoying the likely first NFL quarterback from UA, Nick Foles. The ‘Cats aren’t generating much preseason buzz, but quietly this may prove to be Stoops’ best team.

A short jaunt up I-10, ASU also has its best team in a few years. Though these Sun Devils may not be as strong as the ’07 version, the potential’s there. Vontaze Burfict may be the most talented defensive player in all college football, and provided he can maintain his composure could have a season like LaVarr Arrington’s at Penn State in 1999. ASU also returns a host of talent on offense, including its leading rusher and a solid offensive line.

There’s reason for hopefullness at both Grand Canyon State campuses, but history suggests otherwise.

Last season’s Duel in the Desert went to double overtime, and on paper looks like an exciting rivalry contest. It wasn’t. The game went to overtime simply because neither team could muster enough to win in regulation. The first of Alex Zendejas’ missed extra points summarized UA’s entire season, if not the program’s very existence.

The programs have had their individual successes since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, sure. ASU appeared in Rose Bowls to cap the 1986 and 1996 season, while UA has twice with just one loss (1993 and 1998). More recently, UA has played in a program-high three consecutive bowl games, and in 2007 ASU won a share of the conference title en route to a Holiday Bowl berth. Yet, neither has been able to fulfill its promise. Even in the most fruitful of seasons, lost opportunities prevented each from doing so much more.

In the aforementioned ’07 campaign, ASU’s last to result in a bowl, the Sun Devils hosted USC on Thanksgiving weekend with the opportunity to win the league outright. After getting to within three points of the Trojans in the second quarter, the Sun Devils surrendered 20 unanswered points over the quarter’s waning seconds and into the third. Twenty was also the final point differential. UA had a similar spell of single quarter misfortune in 1998. While it wouldn’t have elevated the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl, it would have sent them to the inaugural Bowl Championship Series title game.

Wait, what?

That’s right. Were it not for a horrific stretch spanning most of the second quarter against UCLA, UA would have ended the ’98 regular season 12-0 (UA received an extra game that season for opening at Hawai’i). The horrendous home showing was one week after the Ortege Jenkins end zone flip to topple Washington on the road. UCLA was your prototypical letdown game, and also a microcosm of UA’s inability to close the deal.

Individual names and moments earn curses from both Sun Devil and Wildcat fans. Say “David Boston” to one of those forkers from Tempe, and watch the cringes. Mention “field storming” to a kitty and painful memories of a blown lead over and potential Rose Bowl bid come to mind.

This year could be the time for one of these programs to snap the curse. If you’re a Ute though, precedent says book your December flight to Oregon sooner than later.