|1997 Arizona Wildcats football|
Insight.com Bowl champion
|Record||7–5 (4–4 Pac-10)|
|Offensive coordinator||Homer Smith (2nd season)|
|Defensive coordinator||Rich Ellerson (1st season)|
|Home stadium||Arizona Stadium|
|No. 9 Washington State +||7||–||1||10||–||2|
|No. 5 UCLA +||7||–||1||10||–||2|
|No. 14 Arizona State||6||–||2||9||–||3|
|No. 18 Washington||5||–||3||8||–||4|
Rankings from AP Poll
The 1997 Arizona Wildcats football team represented the University of Arizona during the 1997 NCAA Division I-A football season. Led by head coach Dick Tomey in his eleventh season at Arizona, the Wildcats compiled a 7–5 record (4–4 against Pac-10 opponents) and won the Insight Bowl against New Mexico, and old rival of Arizona. Coincidentally, the bowl game was played at the Wildcats’ home field, Arizona Stadium. It was the first time that Arizona played a bowl game at their home stadium since 1989, when the Wildcats won the Copper Bowl.
The season was mostly overshadowed by the success of the Wildcats’ basketball team after winning the national championship earlier in the year, though the football program rebounded and ended the year on a winning streak and reaching the postseason, which led to playing their bowl game at home.
After the Wildcats ended the 1996 season with a loss to Arizona State, the team made changes to the defense. Larry Mac Duff, the Arizona defensive coordinator who had been on Tomey's staff since 1987, left to take an assistant coaching job in the NFL and Tomey had to replace him with a new coordinator to rebuild the Desert Swarm.
During the offseason, Arizona's basketball team captured the national championship and caused the state (mostly in the Tucson area) to fall in love with the sport (like it did in 1988 and 1994 during those teams’ Final Four run), and held a victory parade at Arizona Stadium, though Tomey believed that fans would still support football and that the team would compete in the fall.
|September 4||7:30 p.m.||at Oregon||FSN||L 9–16||38,035|
|September 13||7:00 p.m.||UAB*||KTTU||W 24–10||36,309|
|September 20||12:30 p.m.||at No. 9 Ohio State*||ABC||L 20–28||91,152|
|September 27||12:30 p.m.||at No. 24 UCLA||FSN||L 27–40||50,188|
|October 4||7:00 p.m.||San Diego State*||FSN/KTTU||W 31–28||39,195|
|October 11||7:15 p.m.||No. 16 Stanford||FSN||W 28–22||40,273|
|October 18||12:30 p.m.||No. 10 Washington||ABC||L 28–58||50,585|
|October 25||12:30 p.m.||at No. 10 Washington State||ABC||L 34–35 OT||31,137|
|November 8||7:00 p.m.||Oregon State||FSAZ||W 27–7||39,754|
|November 15||8:00 p.m.||California||FSN||W 41–38 2OT||37,111|
|November 28||4:30 p.m.||at No. 12 Arizona State||FSN||W 28–16||73,682|
|December 27||6:00 p.m.||vs. New Mexico*||ESPN||W 20–14||49,385|
Arizona visited Oregon to begin the season. Although they kept the Ducks in check for most of the game, the Wildcats’ offense played poorly but remained in it until the end. Late in the game, Arizona had a chance but came up short and started the season with a loss.
In their first meeting against Ohio State since 1991, Arizona would play tough with the ninth-ranked Buckeyes. Unfortunately, mistakes would cost the Wildcats as a late rally fell short for another close loss. To date, this remains Arizona's most recent trip to Columbus.
At home, the Wildcats played San Diego State for the first time since 1979. The Aztecs got off to an early start and led 21–0 at one point before Arizona stormed back to tie it in the second half. After San Diego State retook the lead late in the third quarter, the Wildcats would come back to tie the game again in the fourth and took the lead with over a minute remaining with a field goal. The Aztecs tried to respond on their final drive, but Arizona's defense would cause and interception to complete the comeback win. The 21-point comeback was the largest for the Wildcats in a win under Tomey.
The Wildcats went to Pullman to face tenth-ranked Washington State. Arizona would battle the Cougars back and forth before forcing overtime. In the first overtime period, Washington State scored a touchdown to take the lead. The Wildcats answered back to cut the lead to one. Instead of kicking the extra point to extend the game to a second overtime, Arizona opted to go for two and the win. However, the attempt failed as the Wildcats were stopped short of the goal line, and the Cougars avoided an upset bid by the Wildcats.
It was the second straight season in which Arizona lost a painful overtime game by failing a two-point conversion. Also, the loss caused the Wildcats to be in danger of missing out on a bowl for the third consecutive year.
In their home finale, the Wildcats hosted California. Arizona would lead most of the game before Cal came back to tie in the final minute of regulation and forced overtime. It was the second consecutive year that both the Wildcats and Golden Bears played in overtime.
After both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime frame, California would miss a field goal in the second which gave Arizona a chance at the win. The Wildcats would convert their field goal try and won their first overtime game in program history and avenged their four-overtime loss to the Bears from the previous season. The win also kept Arizona's bowl chances alive.
See also: Arizona-Arizona State football rivalry
The Wildcats traveled to Arizona State for the “Duel in the Desert” to conclude the regular season. Arizona attempted to get revenge on the Sun Devils after ASU gave them a blowout loss in the previous year. However, things didn't look easy for them as the game took place in Tempe and ASU being ranked 12th and Wildcats needed a win to become bowl-eligible.
In the game, Arizona got off to a good start and led 21–0 before ASU got on the board. Late in the second quarter, the Wildcats scored a touchdown after ASU appeared to jump offsides, which confused both teams as no flag was thrown. The score put Arizona up 28–7 at halftime, which seemed to break the game open. In the second half, Arizona State attempted a comeback, but the Wildcats stopped them short and Arizona got the upset win and avenged their loss to the Devils from the last season. Also, the Wildcats’ win over ASU prevented the Sun Devils from receiving a possible berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
After the game, Tomey said that the team played for pride and were ready to win against their rivals. The victory was the Wildcats’ sixth of the season and made them bowl-eligible.
Main article: 1997 Insight.com Bowl
After beating Arizona State, the Wildcats received an invitation from the Insight Bowl committee, in which they accepted, clinching their first bowl game since 1994.
The bowl game would take place at Arizona's home stadium, which made it more like a home game for the Wildcats despite technically being a neutral-site game. It was Arizona's first bowl at home since 1989 when, they defeated NC State in the Copper Bowl. The opponent for Arizona was New Mexico, who was the secondary rival of the Wildcats from the years that both teams were members of the WAC. Prior to the bowl, both teams announced that the Kit Carson Rifle, the rivalry's trophy, would not be on the line, as the rifle was retired due to allegations of it being used against Native Americans. As the Wildcats possessed the rifle after defeating the Lobos in their previous meeting in 1990, the rifle would be displayed in Tucson.
In the bowl game itself in front of a pro-Arizona crowd and national TV audience, both teams played a close first half with the Wildcats leading at the break. Arizona would add to their lead in the third quarter before New Mexico scored to keep the game close. In the fourth quarter, both teams’ defenses would dominate and the Wildcats would ultimately hold on for the victory and ended the season with a record of 7–5.
|Joe Salavea||D Line||4||107||Tennessee Oilers|
|Jimmy Sprotte||Linebacker||7||205||Tennessee Oilers|
|Chester Burnett||Linebacker||7||208||Minnesota Vikings|
The 1997 season ended successfully for the Wildcats and set the stage for a memorable 1998 season, which would see the offense improve and become high-powered, similar to the 1993 Desert Swarm team that relied on defense.
Offensive coordinator Homer Smith would retire after the season due to health issues and Tomey brought in a new coach to lead the offense for 1998.
Despite a new offensive coordinator, the team's performance in 1998 would lead them into becoming national contenders like they did during the 1992–93 seasons.