20 years ago today: Ortege Jenkins and the Leap by the Lake

Arizona beat Washington on one of the greatest plays in school history

(NOTE: Portions of this story were written in 2008 for the Tucson Citizen)

Arizona had called its final timeout. There were 12 seconds left, the Wildcats down four points. Coach Dick Tomey's message to his quarterback was clear.

"Don't get sacked," he told Ortege Jenkins that night in Seattle exactly 20 years ago today. "If you run, you better make it."

Arizona was at the Washington 9-yard line. Dennis Northcutt and tight end Mike Lucky were split to the left. Malosi Leonard and Brandon Nash were to the right. Washington had 3-on-2 coverage on both sides.

Offensive coordinator Dino Babers called a play that Arizona had not used all season.

Jenkins took the snap, looking left for Northcutt, his top receiver. Double-covered. He looked right into the end zone. Nothing. Jenkins continued to drift back.

Running back Trung Canidate swung out to the right, taking a defender with him. Also covered. Jenkins, still backpedaling, was in trouble, retreating all the way to the 20-yard line. Washington's defensive ends were getting close.

Jenkins' only choice seemed to be an incompletion to stop the clock.

Well, there was one other option.

All the defensive pass coverage was deep or to the outside. The middle was invitingly clear. Jenkins could run. Do or die. Score or lose. Hero or goat.

With Tomey's words still echoing -- "If you run, you better make it" -- Jenkins planted his right foot and charged into history.

"At that point, I was nothing more than a spectator with a really good seat," Arizona's defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson told me last month. "Honestly, when I saw him pull it down and take off, and I saw where (the Huskies) were, I thought, there's no way. That was the wrong thing to be doing at that moment."

There's sometimes a fine line between bravery and foolishness, but Jenkins, who never lacked for confidence, had made his decision, seeking out pay dirt in the purple end zone of Husky Stadium.

"He goes," says Fox Sports Net announcer Steve Physioc.

As Jenkins reached the 10, Washington defenders Brendan Jones and Marques Hairston came up from the end zone. Linebacker Lester Towns moved in from Jenkins' right.

Nash watched helplessly from the end zone; there was no one he could block.

"I was thinking, 'Oh my god, he's tackled,'" Nash said. "Just for a second, I was thinking, 'What is he doing?'"

Jenkins knew he couldn't make it if he tried to dive low. He knew he wasn't going to run over a big guy like Towns. Only one way to go.

In the crazy, hug-filled aftermath of the game, Jenkins, also briefly a member of Lute Olson's Arizona basketball team, said he had no choice but to use his basketball skills.

At about the 3-yard-line, Jenkins left his feet.

"He dives!" Physioc yells.

Jenkins could see the goalpost ... and then suddenly he couldn't. All three Washington defenders hit him low, flipping him heels over head.

"I remember seeing the black sky, the stars in the sky," Jenkins said.

And then he saw the goalpost again.

"HE'S IN!" screams Physioc.

Jenkins landed on his feet in the end zone, tumbled to the ground and popped right back up, having somehow held on to the ball throughout the flip.

"Once I realized where I was, I knew the game was over," Jenkins said.

Arizona made the extra point and then needed only to kick off to end the game, winning 31-28, an instant classic.

"He did like I thought he would do," Canidate told the Pac-12 Networks. "He came up with the miraculous. It was what he was put on Earth to do."

Later that week, Babers chuckled at the absurdity of it all.

"Sometimes," he told the Arizona Daily Star, "these plays even work."

While Jenkins' leap takes its rightful place among signature plays in Arizona's football history -- behind only Chuck Cecil's 106-yard interception return against Arizona State in 1986? -- the Arizona-Washington game from 1998 also was chock full of unlikely Wildcats stars, including one who didn't play.

As Jenkins once told me about the 1998 Arizona-Washington game, "What it came down to was that a lot of people made plays."

Here are five non-OJ heroes from the game:

-- CB Chris McAlister

McAlister, the All-American cornerback, did not travel to the game because of a one-game suspension handed down by the NCAA, which ruled he had received an impermissible extra benefit by receiving a $14,000 loan to cover an insurance policy.

McAlister didn't pout.

Tomey considers what McAlister did next to be the player's finest moment.

When the Wildcats' chartered flight arrived in Tucson at about 3 or 4 early Sunday morning, McAlister was there to greet the team -- by himself, in the rain, full of tears.

"He was crying when we left because he was so upset. And when we got back, they were happy tears," Tomey once told me. "I remember holding him it seemed like forever.

"I told the NFL scouts when they would come by that it was the greatest play Chris ever made. He never made a play that was as important or will be as important to his team than what he did that night."

If there is a moment that defines the chemistry on Arizona's 12-1 team that season, that was it. Especially because it came from McAlister, a player who was generally "to himself," Ellerson said last month.

"That was the most crystallizing thing he could do," Ellerson said.

"It goes back to what Dick always said, "What you do speaks so loudly I can't hear what you say.' That defined Chris in my mind -- and in a lot of people's minds -- just about who he was and how he felt about that team.

"Dick's teams were extraordinary that way. They were team, team, team, team. Chris had clearly embraced that. And that's to his credit, but I think it also speaks to Dick Tomey's leadership."

-- WR Brandon Nash

Arizona was short-handed at wide receiver because Brad Brennan was at home with an ankle injury and Jeremy McDaniel suffered a groin injury during the game.

When Arizona started its late game-winning drive, which would span 13 plays, the receiving corps was worn out. That's why coaches put in Jenkins at wideout at the start of the drive, inserting tag-team partner Keith Smith at quarterback. Jenkins had a 22-yard reception on the drive.

Nash, a backup, came up big, too.

"No," Tomey said Tuesday, "Brandon Nash had some huge plays."

Nash caught a two-point conversion pass in the first half and nearly scored on the final drive, leaving his feet to catch a 23-yard pass and hitting the turf at the 1-yard line.

"I just wanted to catch the ball," Nash told me in 2008.

"I caught it falling down, basically. And then I'm on the ground and look around and I'm like, 'Dude, the end zone is right there. I should have stayed on my feet. What the heck?'"

A false start penalty moved the ball back to the 6. Jenkins was sacked for a loss of 3 yards before UA used its final timeout.

-- LB Marcus Bell

The UA's star linebacker -- first-team all-conference that season -- blocked a 19-yard field goal in the third quarter.

Not only did it turn out to be huge in denying the Huskies an almost-sure three points, but it figured into what happened when Washington's Jim Skurski lined up for a 23-yarder with three minutes left.

Skurski, who had an extra point blocked by Peter Hansen late in the first half (keep reading for more on him), was so spooked by the blocks that he went wide right on that 23-yard attempt. If he had hit it straight, Hansen likely would have swatted it down, Tomey said later.

"That last miss," Tomey said later that week, "was a direct result of the first two blocks."

Skurski, by the way, never kicked for the Huskies again.

-- DT Keoni Frasier

Skurski never would have even attempted that 23-yarder -- and any Arizona comeback would have pretty much been put out of reach -- if Frasier hadn't made two unassisted stops near the goal line on Washington running back Maurice Hurst.

Those were two huge stops for the true freshman defensive tackle, who kept the game within one score.

"Holy cow," Tomey said in 1998. "Two unassisted goal-line tackles. If they get in, we're done."

-- Peter Hansen

When the NCAA denied Arizona's appeal on Friday afternoon to have McAlister eligible to play, the coaches decided a few hours before the flight to Seattle to add Hansen, a 6-foot-7 quarterback best described as a kick-blocking specialist.

As the 60th and final man on the travel roster, Hansen -- now the inside linebackers coach at Stanford -- blocked that PAT late in the first half and helped influence Skurski's 23-yard field goal miss late in the game.

"If you block a kick, you're on the team for life," Tomey said at the time.

True enough. Hansen, whose role was to stand behind the line, time his jump and stretch his arms into the air, went on to block seven kicks in his UA career. He had one job -- and did it so well that trading a two-time All-Pac-10 cornerback (McAlister) for a walk-on quarterback turned out to be a pretty good swap.

* * *

Tomey said Tuesday, the real story of the 1998 team, of those players, was they believed. They believed in themselves and they believed that hard work would be rewarded.

"We did more team-building stuff that probably anybody did then or now," Tomey said Tuesday.

"I was a Bo Schembechler disciple who repeated, 'The team, the team, the team,' in his sleep practically. And I believed that. I believed it was the only thing that mattered. I believe that no matter what happened to you, you could overcome it if you stayed together and worked together ... instead of listening to people giving you advice on what you couldn't do."

On that night 20 years ago, Ortege Jenkins did what looked like couldn't be done at the end of a remarkable game.

"I believe in self-talk," Tomey said Tuesday, crediting former Arizona head coach and Tomey assistant Jim Young for the idea.

"Our self-talk during that game was, 'The harder it gets, the better we play.' I could hear that on the sideline at Washington. 'The harder it gets, the better we play.'"

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FiremanLA
FiremanLA

Great read. Great times. Love it: the harder it gets, the better we play.



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