Nov. 21, 1996: ASU hopes similarities with ’86 team end at UofA

 by Ed Odeven, the State Press

This article ran in the Nov. 21, 1996 issue of the State Press

Forget the hype surrounding ASU’s re-emergence as a Pac-10 power this season.

Forget the thrill of the team’s No. 4 ranking, which was triggered by a shocking 19-0 dismantling of football powerhouse Nebraska on Sept. 21 at Sun Devil Stadium.

There will be one thing on the minds of hated rivals ASU and UofA Saturday – a triumph at “The Game” at a sold-out, festive Arizona Stadium.

“History repeats itself,” someone once said. And Saturday’s game is a classic example of that.

The 1996 Sun Devils are 10-0 and hope to end the regular season as undefeated Pac-10 champions.

The 1986 Sun Devils faced a similar situation. They were on their way to a Rose Bowl Championship. They were undefeated (9-0-1) heading into a showdown at Arizona Stadium. But the Wildcats spoiled the Sun Devils’ dream for an undefeated season with a memorable 34-17 victory.

Ex-Sun Devil receiver Bruce Hill (1983-86) remembers the emotional trauma his team felt a decade ago in Tucson.

“It was devastating. It put us back a notch,” said Hill, who played in the NFL from 1987-1993 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. “All of the clichÎs you can use and they are all true. That’s the way we felt. It’s sad to be such a dominant team when you lose to the UofA and you’re a better team.”

Ex-Sun Devil quarterback Jeff Van Raaphorst (1983-86) agreed.

“Everybody was extremely upset. We basically felt we were a better team. We just didn’t play with enough intensity. We got caught looking forward to the Rose Bowl.”

After the game, the ASU locker room was filled with uncharacteristic behavior.

“Grown men were crying after the game,” Hill said.

One play stood out in Hill’s mind from that game.

“The one play I remember was being on the ground seeing (UofA safety) Chuck Cecil go 107 yards,” Hill said, referring to Cecil’s famous 107-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Ohio State coach John Cooper, who coached at ASU from 1985-1987, did not deliver an inspirational speech after the UofA game.

“What do you say to 30 guys that are crying?,” Hill said, referring to Cooper’s locker-room silence.

The current Sun Devils hope to avoid post-game depression.

“I was reading something in the State Press (Wednesday)
where one of the alumni wrote, ‘that if you go 0-10 and you win at
UofA you have a winning season and if you go 10-0 and lose to
them you have a losing season,'” said ASU senior defensive tackle
Shawn Swayda. “I think it has a lot of truth in it. I feel all the games we’ve won will be at a loss if we lose this one.”

Some things never change. But what has changed is the attitude players have toward history.

Ex-Sun Devils willingly discuss the past, but the current ASU players are focused only on the present.

“It (history) means nothing to me,” Swayda said.

Another likeness between the 1986 and 1996 squads is team leadership and camaraderie.

“The biggest similarity I see is a lot of three-year starters,” Van Raaphorst said. “(Both teams) have lots of experience. I think they enjoy being around each other, and everybody got along real well on our team.”

As far as leadership, Hill finds striking similarities between current ASU quarterback Jake “The Snake” Plummer and Van Raaphorst.

“Both are very talented,” Hill said. “Both are great leaders. Jeff could take control in the huddle and I see Jake that way too.”

Hill offered a few words of advice for the 1996 Sun Devils.

“The main thing to tell them is you can’t take (UofA) lightly. This is a bowl game for UofA,” he said.

When ASU walks onto the field Saturday, senior linebacker Scott Von der Ahe will care less about history.

“I don’t have any friends or relatives (from the 1986 team),” he said. “All those things mean nothing to me, and I think as a whole team it’s a whole different year. Last year we were 6-4 going into the game and we were a good football team. This year we are 10-0 and we are a great football team. We know what it means to win. We know what it means to go down there and play a good football team. I don’t see any comparisons really to past years.”

The Sun Devils are on a mission that is not yet completed. There are still two stops left – Tucson and Pasadena – in ASU’s quest to be 12-0 and No. 1.