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Win raises Arizona to new heights

It was the end of a beginning.

Arizona's beginning.

The first, tangible piece in an emerging Arizona football tradition was put into place Wednesday night by a thoroughly gritty and often crazy 23-20 victory over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

In some ways, it was a vintage Arizona performance in a wild, improbable season. The Wildcats were up, down, on their heels, reeling and yet never out.

Ever resourceful, the Wildcats fooled the Cornhuskers, the Qualcomm Stadium crowd of 65,354 and expectations for the last time in 1998.

Their victory over a leading member of college football's royal family will have immediate impact.

"Arizona is a complete football team in all areas _ offense, defense and especially special teams," said Nebraska coach Frank Solich, who could have been casting a vote for Arizona's 1999 prospects.

The Wildcats are sure to finish the 1998 season with a Top 5 ranking. With the loss Tuesday night of fourth-ranked Kansas State, No. 4 looks like a lock. And then, of course, there's next season. The season-ending victory over Nebraska promises to put the Wildcats in the hunt for the national championship.

But there will be more about all of that later. A lot more.

On this one night, the Wildcats proved that, yes, they were unknown in September, underrated in October and unbelievable in December.

One number says plenty and says it 12 times. Once-beaten Arizona finished with 12 victories for the first time in a history that dates to 1899.

But, for a while, it looked as if the Cornhuskers (9-4) would finish a Cinderella season and leave Arizona again searching for a way to be more than just another unknown program. For oh-so-long, the A on the side of Wildcats' helmets has stood for Anonymous.

More anonymity seemed to be on the horizon when a difficult game started with a lot of blown opportunities, all Arizona's. The Wildcats were within Nebraska's 10-yard line three times in the first half. They had two touchdowns _ a Keith Smith pass to Brad Brennan and a 78-yard punt return by Chris McAlister _ nullified by penalties.

The No. 5 Wildcats could have had at least 28 points at halftime. Instead, they had nine, thanks to three Mark McDonald field goals.

All the while, No. 14 Nebraska exercised its superior power on both offense and defense. There were a couple of Kris Brown field goals and a 35-yard TD pass from Eric Crouch to Shevin Wiggins.

Arizona should have been leading. But, there was Nebraska, ahead at halftime 13-9. For Arizona, there was a further complication.

Receiver Jeremy McDaniel was sidelined with a hip pointer in the first quarter. The Wildcats' dynamic passing game had lost a key component.

What to do?

"To come back against Nebraska was huge," Arizona coach Dick Tomey said. "I told them at halftime that we hadn't been down at halftime all season. I told them to keep their poise."

Old habits never die. Tomey was certain of the poise. His team's inexhaustible pluck provided the rest. All season, Arizona thrived on the improbable, if not the seemingly impossible.

Late in the third quarter, the Wildcats drove from their 34 to Nebraska's 21. It was fourth and 1. Time for a field goal? Forget it. Kelvin Eafon got the call and ran 2 yards on a sprained ankle for a critical first down.

Three plays later early in the fourth quarter, Smith hit Brennan with a 15-yard TD strike that, this time, counted.