Throwback Thursday: Arizona Wildcats’ historic 23-20 win over Nebraska in 1998 Holiday Bowl


The 1998 Holiday Bowl Media Guide and final official scoring summary of Arizona's  historic 23-20 win over Nebraska (Javier Morales/

The 1998 Holiday Bowl Media Guide and final official scoring summary of Arizona’s historic 23-20 win over Nebraska (Javier Morales/

The memorable 1998 Arizona Wildcats football season began with Chris McAlister returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown at Hawaii.

It ended with McAlister securing the Arizona Wildcats’ historic 23-20 win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl with an interception thwarting the Cornhuskers’ final drive.

Within those bookend McAlister highlight plays in the Arizona Wildcats’ 12-1 season were many landmark wins and spectacular individual performances. Forever etched in our minds is the Leap by the Lake by Ortege Jenkins at Washington that season. Trung Canidate had three breakaway long distance touchdown runs against ASU.

I was honored to be there in San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium for the Holiday Bowl as a reporter for The Arizona Daily Star. On this Throwback Thursday, I am showing the Arizona Wildcats’ Holiday Bowl media guide and final NCAA official scoring summary from the game that I kept as memorabilia.

If it weren’t for UCLA’s shocking loss to Miami 25 days before the Holiday Bowl, I would have been in Pasadena, Calif., to watch Arizona play in its first Rose Bowl. The Bruins, undefeated heading into the game at Miami, needed a win for a spot in the first BCS national title game. The loss instead sent UCLA, which gave Arizona its only defeat, to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-10 champs.

The Wildcats secured the school’s best record in the program’s history and earned its highest ranking to end the season at No. 4. The Holiday Bowl game was also the most watched of any college game in ESPN history at that time.

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Top names from Arizona's past including Chris McAlister, Dennis Northcutt and Trung Canidate shown here on the handwritten 1998 Holiday Bowl individual statistics report (Javier Morales/

Top names from Arizona’s past including Chris McAlister, Dennis Northcutt and Trung Canidate shown here on the handwritten 1998 Holiday Bowl individual statistics report (Javier Morales/

“He kept telling us the ‘N’ (on Nebraska’s helmet) stood for ‘Not today,’” former UA receiver and special teams player Brandon Nash told’s Anthony Gimino in a 2009 article.

“Every time we saw that helmet, he wanted us to think, ‘Not today, not today.’ You look back at that now, and it sounds so corny, but that has stuck with me forever and it was very motivating back then.”

The Wildcats’ victory was a new experience for the Huskers (9-4), who saw their four-game winning streak in bowl games terminated. It was the first four-loss season for Nebraska since 1968. The defeat denied Frank Solich in his bid to become the school’s first coach to win 10 games in his first season.


Year Record Final Ranking Coach
1998 12-1 No. 4 Dick Tomey
1993 10-2 No. 10 Dick Tomey
1988 9-3 No. 11 Larry Smith
1961 8-1-1 No. 17 Jim LaRue
1975 9-2 No. 18 Jim Young
2014 10-3 No. 19 Rich Rodriguez
1994 8-4 No. 20 Dick Tomey
1989 8-4 No. 25 Dick Tomey

Arizona’s defense held the Nebraska option rushing attack to 87 net yards — the Huskers’ second-lowest output of the season — and the Wildcats broke free for 14 fourth-quarter points to beat the Cornhuskers. Arizona ranked No. 12 nationally in rushing defense entering the game.

McAlister, a unanimous All-America senior cornerback, intercepted two passes, including the one which turned the Huskers back on their final drive with less than four minutes remaining. He also had a 78-yard reverse punt return called back because of a questionable illegal blocking call.

McAlister’s interception is one of the most memorable plays in the program’s history. He leaped high to snag the pass from Nebraska freshman Eric Crouch on a third-and-11 play from the Arizona 46.

“This is the happiest and saddest time of my life,” McAlister, a senior playing his last collegiate game, told reporters. “This was a tremendous win for the University of Arizona, and that makes me very happy. But I’ll never get to strap on my helmet as a Wildcat again … and that’s the sad part. I can’t believe it’s over.”

Canidate ran for 101 yards on 22 carries. The other part of Arizona’s two-headed quarterback monster — Keith Smith — completed 11-of-19 passes for 143 yards and ran for 25. He was named Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP. Arizona’s Mark McDonald, who was 8-of-17 in field goals during the regular season, turned in a perfect 3-for-3 performance, including a career-long 48-yarder.

“That game felt different than any game I played in at Arizona,” Smith told Gimino. “It kind of felt like what I thought the Super Bowl would feel like. It was like the lights were brighter. It was different. It was definitely fun to play in. It was probably the most fun I had in a football game.” publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He has also written articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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