|1996 Arizona Wildcats football|
|1996 record||5–6 (3–5 Pac-10)|
|Offensive coordinator||Homer Smith (1st season)|
|Defensive coordinator||Larry Mac Duff (10th season)|
|Home stadium||Arizona Stadium|
|1996 Pacific-10 Conference football standings|
|No. 4 Arizona State $||8||–||0||11||–||1|
|No. 16 Washington||7||–||1||9||–||3|
Rankings from AP Poll
The 1996 Arizona Wildcats football team represented the University of Arizona in the Pacific-10 Conference (Pac-10) during the 1996 NCAA Division I-A football season. In their tenth season under head coach Dick Tomey, the Wildcats compiled a 5–6 record (3–5 against Pac-10 opponents), finished in a tie for fifth place in the Pac-10, and outscored their opponents, 310 to 280.
The team played its home games in Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona. On November 23, 1996, the team drew a record crowd of 59,920 to Arizona Stadium to watch a 56–14 loss to Arizona State. As of today, this remains the Arizona Stadium attendance record. The Wildcats allowed 450 rushing yards in the loss to the Sun Devils. The highlight of the Arizona State game for the Wildcats was a 98-yard interception return, the second longest in program history, by Mikal Smith.
Team records set during the 1996 season included: three interception returns for touchdown in a game (vs. Illinois); eight touchdowns allowed in a game (vs. California); 16 touchdowns scored in a Pac-10 game (vs. UCLA); 659 yards of total offense allowed in a Pac-10 game (vs. California); and 450 rushing yards allowed in a Pac-10 game (vs. Arizona State).
The team's statistical leaders included Keith Smith with 1,450 passing yards, Gary Taylor with 564 rushing yards, and Jeremy McDaniel with 607 receiving yards. Linebacker Chester Burnett led the team with 124 tackles.
After completing the 1995 season, the Wildcats had to rebuild the team by finding recruits. Duane Akina, the team’s offensive coordinator since 1992, stepped down from his position and would become the defensive backs coach. Tomey brought in Alabama offensive coordinator Homer Smith to take over at the same position to fix Arizona’s offense that had been mediocre under Akina. They also had to get a new quarterback and replacing most of the “Desert Swarm” defensive players, which included Tedy Bruschi, the leader of the unit, who graduated.
By the preseason, Arizona, even though with a new offensive coordinator, was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-10 standings.
|August 31||7:00 p.m.||UTEP*||KTTU||W 23–3||40,388|
|September 7||10:30 a.m.||at No. 22 Iowa*||ESPN||L 20–21||68,267|
|September 14||7:00 p.m.||Illinois*||Prime||W 41–0||43,012|
|September 21||12:30 p.m.||at No. 24 Washington||ABC||L 17–31||73,414|
|October 5||7:00 p.m.||Washington State||Prime AZ||W 34–26||47,405|
|October 12||3:30 p.m.||at USC||Prime||L 7–14||51,088|
|October 26||7:00 p.m.||Oregon State||KTTU||W 33–7||43,716|
|November 2||12:30 p.m.||at California||FSN||L 55–56 4OT||35,000|
|November 9||2:00 p.m.||at Oregon||FSN||L 31–49||40,721|
|November 16||1:30 p.m.||UCLA||ABC||W 35–17||47,171|
|November 23||4:30 p.m.||No. 4 Arizona State||FSN||L 14–56||59,920|
|1996 Arizona Wildcats football team roster|
Arizona went to Iowa City and took on the Hawkeyes, who were ranked 22nd. It was Tomey’s first meeting against Iowa since his first season with the Wildcats in 1987 (Arizona lost to the Hawkeyes that year). The Wildcats would play tough with Iowa, but mistakes would cost them a chance at winning and they came up short.
At home, the Wildcats hosted Illinois in their second straight game against a Big Ten opponent. Arizona’s defense would play like the Desert Swarm by picking apart the Illini offense and intercepted five passes, with three of them being returned for touchdowns on its way to a shutout victory and avenging the Wildcats’ loss to the Illini in the previous season. To date, this remains the most recent meeting between Arizona and Illinois.
Arizona traveled to the Coliseum to face USC. The Wildcats would hold the Trojans in check, but the offense struggled in a defense-dominated game. Arizona committed crucial turnovers during scoring threats, which would ultimately lead them to lose.
The Wildcats traveled to Berkeley to play California. The game would go back and forth between the two teams and went to overtime. It was the first overtime game for Arizona in its football history. Both teams would then trade touchdowns in the first three periods which set up a wild fourth frame.
In the fourth overtime period, the Golden Bears scored to regain the lead at 56–49. The Wildcats then answered on their possession with a touchdown of their own to make it 56–55. However, on the extra point attempt, Arizona faked the play but botched an errant two-point conversion run which would have been for the win and California escaped with the victory.
After the game, Tomey said that he wanted to go for the win instead of forcing a fifth overtime due to the team being exhausted after four overtimes. He also said that the blunder on the game’s final play would likely affect the team for the rest of the reason.
On homecoming day, the Wildcats hosted UCLA. After a slow first half, Arizona came up big in the second half with touchdowns, including one on a returned interception and another on a kickoff. The Wildcats would then shut down the Bruins the rest of the way for the win and kept their bowl hopes alive.
In the season finale, the Wildcats hosted Arizona State in the annual “Duel in the Desert”. The Sun Devils, who were ranked fourth and unbeaten, had already clinched the Pac-10 and a spot in the Rose Bowl and the Wildcats hoped to spoil ASU’s possible national title hopes like they did ten years prior. However, all of these plans were put to rest as ASU jumped out to an early lead and broke the game open before halftime, as Arizona didn’t seem to have a chance against the mighty Devils.
A bright spot for the Wildcats occurred early in the fourth quarter after a wild sequence of events. With the Devils up big at 42–7 and Wildcat fans already heading for the exits, ASU threw a pass toward the end zone that was intercepted by Arizona and returned 98 yards for a touchdown, which mirrored the Wildcats’ pick-six against ASU in 1986. During the play, an ASU offensive player shoved a violent hit on an Arizona defender, which would lead to a fight between both teams and the ASU player involved being ejected from the game. Both teams were also penalized for the brawl.
After order was restored, ASU would add a pair of scores to ice the game. In the end though, the Wildcats’ deficit was too much to overcome and lost big to end their season at 5–6 and missing the postseason.
Tomey told reporters after the game that ASU “played like an NFL team” against the Wildcats by putting up several points and stopping Arizona’s offense. Arizona State would ultimately lose to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, much to the delight of Wildcat fans.
The Wildcats had to once again rebuild the program after concluding the season. Defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff, who had been with Arizona since Tomey’s hiring in 1987 and one of the masterminds of the Desert Swarm, would leave Arizona to become the special teams coach for the NFL’s New York Giants. Arizona had to replace him with a new coach to re-energize the defense and only the last few members of the Swarm remained on the team.
The 1996 football season would become forgotten by the spring of 1997, as Arizona’s basketball team reached the Final Four and won the national championship, though the football program continued to rebuild and recruit during the span.
The Wildcats’ rebuilding offense would later improve and become dominant for the rest of the decade, and become a force in the Pac-10 as well as in the nation.