Arizona collapses through the years

The Stanford camp likes to think it has cornered the market on soul-crushing losses, those that take you from the edge of your stadium seat to a psychologist's leather couch. The Cardinal's next opponent, however, knows all about such outcomes, especially late in the season with Rose Bowl possibilities at stake. How else to explain Arizona's 32 seasons without the prized trip to Pasadena?

If you think Ontiwaun, Ortege and Trung are unique first names, consider the inventive ways the Wildcats have managed to avoid the Pac-10's biggest postseason prize.

A year ago, Arizona took Oregon to double overtime at home in a game it led during the fourth quarter. The visitors prevailed to take another step closer to an eventual Pac-10 title. This year marks the eighth time the Wildcats have fielded a team that has seriously contended for a championship. Here's examining what went wrong for 'Zona during the other six seasons prior to 2009, when it finished a strong runner-up. The conference records of both Arizona and that year's Pac-10 champ are in parentheses.

1. UCLA (6-1-1)
4. Arizona (4-3-1)

The fall Lute Olson set up shop in Tuscon, it was Larry Smith and Arizona football making national headlines, reaching No. 3 in the AP poll by starting the year 4-0-1. In November, the Bruins' lone conference loss occurred against Arizona. One slight problem: The 'Cats weren't eligible to go to Pasadena, having begun the first of a two-year probation stint. The NCAA found 31 infractions that occurred throughout the previous decade, beginning in 1971. The ruling followed an investigation that began in 1980, just as Smith came on head coach.

1. UCLA (6-2)
2. Arizona (5-2)

Their probation over, the inspired squad responded by starting 6-1 (2-0 in conference play), but was done in by two untimely outcomes. First, the Wildcats were stymied by an underwhelming Stanford squad. The 1-6 Cardinal's 28-17 victory featured 21 unanswered points on a Wildcat defense that came in averaging nearly four sacks per game. Two weeks later, Arizona spotted visiting UCLA a 24-7 lead before coming up short in a 24-19 loss. It settled for beating Arizona State and ending the Sun Devils' Rose Bowl dreams, just as had happened three years earlier.

1. Washington (6-2)
5. Arizona (4-3-1)

It took Dick Tomey's side two weeks to go from national darlings to dunces in their home state. There was much rejoicing – goalposts falling, students moshing – when the Wildcats ended Washington's two-year streak without a Pac-10 loss. The result put Desert Swarm atop the conference standings and in control of their Rose Bowl destiny by the season's penultimate week. But someone forgot to remind the Arizona offense it needed points, not punts. USC would fire Larry Smith at season's end, but not before he ruined his old team's hopes by a 14-7 margin. Arizona State furthered the slide by winning a 7-6 meatgrinder. The curse, as UofA fans would soon find out, was only beginning.

1. UCLA (6-2)
2. Arizona (6-2)

Among the wins in Arizona's 6-0 start was a 27-24 comeback victory over Stanford that served as the genesis for The Bootleg itself. Hopes of an unbeaten season ended at UCLA, but disaster truly struck at Cal. With under four minutes left, Eric Zomalt's 35-yard interception return for a score put the Bears ahead in a game they once trailed 20-0. The Wildcats' ensuing drive ended on downs inside the Cal red zone. Maybe they could have answered, had receiver Terry Vaughn not brushed up against an official while handing him the ball. He was flagged for a personal foul.

1. Oregon (7-1)
2. Arizona (6-2)

For the third straight year, Desert Swarm allowed fewer than 300 yards per game. For the third straight year, Arizona failed to claim an outright conference championship. The Wildcats reached as high as No. 6 in the country in the early going. Tedy Bruschi finished the first of his two straight All-American seasons. But when opportunistic Oregon allowed just two second-half first downs in their 16-10 victory over visiting Arizona, a major turning point was at hand. The Pac-10's next power for years to come was born. 'Zona still searches for its breakthrough.

1. UCLA (8-0)
2. Arizona (7-1)

You know those scenes on Selection Sunday, when live cameras capture a team's stone-faced agony upon learning of being left out of the NCAA tournament bracket? So it went for a very strong Arizona team when unbeaten UCLA traveled to Miami in December. The game was originally scheduled for September but postponed due a hurricane. The Bruins could have beaten Hurricanes to sew a trip to the Fiesta Bowl and the first BCS title game, but their 49-45 loss nixed that. The dejected Wildcats – who expected a Rose Bowl invite in place of UCLA, but settled for a 12-1 finish after winning the Holiday Bowl – couldn't believe their eyes. Some of their fans still haven't recovered.

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