The University of Arizona football team long ago figured to be home for Christmas. But the Wildcats never thought they would be home for Christmas and New Year's--and for the week between Christmas and New Year's, the week before Christmas and the week after New Year's.
The Wildcats began this season as the No. 4 team in the Associated Press media rankings, the No. 3 team in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' rankings. They finished with a 6-6 record, including losses in their final three games, making them ineligible for a bowl game.
So while most people enjoy this holiday time with friends and family, Wildcats Coach Dick Tomey said: "We hate it."
Linebacker DaShon Polk is scheduled to play in today's Blue-Gray all-star game in Montgomery, Ala., but things are particularly testy for two Wildcats who have siblings playing on teams that will be playing in bowl games. Sophomore wide receiver Malosi Leonard's brother Matt plays for Stanford, which is headed to the Rose Bowl. Bennie Joppru, brother of Arizona senior defensive lineman J.J. Joppru, is a tight end for Orange Bowl-bound Michigan.
"My brother left for his bowl game [Dec. 21] and he's been giving me a hard time and cracking jokes to my friends," J.J. Joppru said from his home in Minnetonka, Minn. "[Bennie said things] like, 'When are you leaving for your bowl game? Oh, I forgot, you're not going.' "
Joppru won't be headed with his parents to Miami to watch his brother ("I'm too [ticked] off that I'm not going to a bowl game," he said), but he said he would watch the game on television. Joppru will spend the rest of his holiday hanging out with his family, ice fishing and working out. He also attended the Vikings-Packers game last Monday, but was so worked up that he really couldn't enjoy it.
With 17 returning starters from a lightly regarded 1998 team that went 12-1, defeated Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and was ranked No. 4 in both of the final polls, Arizona reasonably thought it could cap its centennial season by playing for the national championship at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4.
At minimum, the Wildcats seemed to have an excellent chance of winning the Pacific-10 Conference championship, and erasing their distinction of being the only Pac-10 team never to have played in the Rose Bowl.
Arizona opened the season Aug. 28 by getting hammered, 41-7, at then-No. 3 Penn State in the widely anticipated, and nationally televised, Pigskin Classic.
"I'm sure [that loss] was damaging," Tomey said during his final news conference of the season. "It damaged our confidence greatly, and the fact that it was such a high-profile game I think was the most damaging.
" . . . But that doesn't excuse the way we played all season. We had plenty of chances to come back."
The Wildcats won five of their next six games, but that 5-2 mark was deceiving. None of the victories were particularly impressive--although they did overcome a 25-7 deficit to win at Texas Christian a week after the Penn State debacle--and the loss, in their Pac-10 opener, was devastating. It was a 50-22 rout at home by eventual conference champion Stanford.
In many ways, that game summed up Arizona's season. For the season, it allowed 30.3 points per game (94th among the nation's 114 Division I-A teams). Against Stanford, it committed three turnovers and forced none; for the season, Arizona's turnover differential was minus-1 per game (tied for 110th).
The Wildcats were penalized eight times in the game; for the season, they were penalized a school-record 114 times. In the second quarter, they allowed a touchdown on a fourth-down play from its 1-yard line and were stopped on a fourth down from the Stanford 1; for the season, they were 4 for 12 on fourth-down conversions and their opponents were 12 for 18.
About the only deficiency in Arizona's season that didn't show up against the Cardinal was place kicking. For the season, Wildcats kickers combined to make 6 of 19 field goal attempts and 35 of 40 extra points. And that problem helped cost them a 44-41 loss to Oregon in which Mark McDonald missed an extra point in the third quarter, Oregon went ahead on 32-yard field goal with 1:04 to play and McDonald missed a 45-yard field goal try with two seconds left.
Arizona followed that game with a 33-7 victory at UCLA that improved its record to 6-3, but the three losses to end the season--including 42-27 to Arizona State in the finale--eliminated the Wildcats from bowl contention because they didn't have a winning record.
As a result, few in Tucson will remember that Arizona averaged 472 yards per game (third in the nation) or that senior running back Trung Canidate rushed for 1,602 yards or that wide receiver-punt returner Dennis Northcutt caught 88 passes for 1,422 yards and eight touchdowns and led the nation by averaging 18.9 yards per punt return with two more touchdowns.
"We had a chance to go [to a bowl] up to the very end," Tomey said this week. "It's not so much not going to a bowl, but it's the way we played. If we played our best and maximized our potential, then so be it. But we didn't, and we feel a little empty because of that."
Defensive end Joe Tafoya, a junior from Pittsburg, Calif., will be heading to Mount Shasta for a small family vacation during the holiday break, but he already is looking ahead.
"You have to weigh the good with the bad," Tafoya said. "Being home for the first time in three years to see my family, it's not so bad. I get to go home and have some homemade enchiladas. . . . Next year, [my family] can ship me some homemade enchiladas."
Tomey will celebrate Christmas at home in Tucson before heading to Hawaii with his wife, Nanci Kincaid, for a vacation.
"You can't screw up a Christmas vacation, but there's a little part of you that's empty because you're not playing," said Tomey, whose team had been to a bowl game in seven of the previous 10 seasons. "But I promise you, it won't mess up my Christmas."