Could U.C.L.A.'s big win on Saturday be a resounding announcement that the Bruins have taken a big step towards excellence? (photo courtesy of Telemachus)
Twenty four years and 2 days. That's how long it's been since we beat Nebraska in football.
That game in 1988 was something of a landmark for U.C.L.A. football. We were always a well respected team in those days, but Nebraska seemed to be in different league. They were a perennial contender for the national title and one of a handful of teams at the top of everyone's list when you talked about the best college programs in America. And right on cue, the Huskers and 20,000 fans in red came to Pasadena that day ranked #2 in the country.
And we absolutely smoked them. Aikman hit Arbuckle up the seam. Wills ran wild. Henley housed a punt. Darby deflated the Nebraska offense with one vicious hit. The Bruins were up 28-0 at the end of the first quarter and the game was over and it was U.C.L.A., not Nebraska, who laid claim to being one of the dominant teams in college football. The offense put up 35 in the first half, and the defense, the unsung stars of that game, gave up only 10 against the vaunted Husker attack. One key to that dominating defensive effort was the outstanding play of our D Line, which included DT Brian Kelly who had 4 tackles, including 2 for a loss, that day. Stay tuned for why that's important.
I remember that Nebraska game for a lot of reasons. One, obviously, it was an incredible moment for a Bruin fan, both for the win and for the joy of knowing that our team was now in the conversation about who was number one. Two, it was my 2nd year at U.C.L.A. and that game was the last home game I ever missed as a student. I was the newest supervisor at Access Control in the dorms (yes!) and all my coworkers were going to the game, leaving me stuck in the office that day to watch on TV. Three, and most strikingly, I remember the Nebraska fans at halftime. For a group not accustomed to losing, let alone getting blown out, they displayed as much class as I've ever seen when, down by 25 as the first half ended, the entire sea of red in the south endzone stood and applauded as both teams went into the locker rooms. I have never forgotten that sort of loyalty by a fanbase for its team, and that sort of respect for an opponent.
Last week, I said I didn't want to be Rice.
This week, I'm saying we can all learn a lot from Nebraska.
I don't need to remind anyone that we've had a rough decade or so in football. There were some all-too brief golden moments over that time, but it was nothing like the sustained success of our teams in the60's and 70's and 80's and mid 90's, and we haven't even sniffed the heights we reached in that 1988 season. And as our team's success flagged, so did the interest and enthusiasm of the Bruin fans.
In a somewhat less futile fashion, Nebraska has experienced some rough years of its own lately. The Huskers haven't finished the season ranked in the AP top 10 since 2002 (and in 5 of those years they weren't ranked at all) after doing so for 25 of the previous 32 years. But no matter how bad things got under Frank Solich and Bill Callahan, Memorial Stadium was sold out and solid red every weekend, just as it has been every weekend since November 1962.
Now personally, I don't want to live in Nebraska. I haven't ever been there, but I've been close to its border with Colorado and South Dakota a couple times, and I think I could see into Nebraska, or at least over it. I believe Nebraska probably looks a lot like Kansas, which is to say, it looks flat and featureless and sort of tannish-green for hundreds of miles on end. People who drive through Nebraska have confirmed this to me, and I am more than willing to take their word and not go prove it for myself.
But I would LOVE to go see a football game in Lincoln. And I'm not talking about our return engagement with the Huskers next season. I'm talking about a game against someone I don't care about, so I can just sit and experience what that stadium and those fans are like, and how they celebrate and support the ideal of Nebraska football. I admire that fanbase for its devotion to its program and its knowledge and respect for the game. I want to take that experience and write about it for us so we can apply it on Saturdays in Pasadena, and learn from it so I can be a better fan of my Bruins, or even my kids' teams. I also think it might help me to better tolerate the fluctuations that go with being a fan. It really hurt to be so low during and after our recent years.
At the same time, I don't want to get too high after yesterday's win. Which really was a great win, by the way. While the Bruins didn't play a perfect game, they played hard all game long. They played mean and strong on defense. They played fast and potent on offense. They got behind and didn't blink. They faked a kick and threw to the end zone. They got better at halftime. They were aggressive and never passive. They looked confident without being cocky. They made clutch plays, including a safety and a turnover and a touchdown, in the 4th quarter. They amassed 653 yards against a good defensive B1G Ten team. The Bruins played against Nebraska like they wanted to make a statement for the program like the '88 Bruins did with their win over Nebraska.
I think all Bruin fans have been looking for a signal that tells us that things are turning around.
Of course, I thought the Two Live Drew show in 2005 was the signal until that team got exposed twice late in the season. Then I thought 13-9 was finally the key, but we got buried in our bowl game and Dorrell never looked good again. I hoped maybe Neuhisel's opening win over Tennessee was that statement, but it was followed by that embarrassment at BYU and an 8 loss season. Or maybe the road win at Tennessee the following year was it, but then that year simply seesawed W's and L's before regressing the next.
So without throwing too much water on the fire, let's celebrate this victory, but let's keep it in perspective, too. It was one game. One great game. And we have another one to play next week. Let's realize that if we don't keep improving, this game will be like Neuheisel's wins over Tennessee, or Dorrell's win over *$c. Let's keep the long term picture in mind, especially since that long term picture is starting to look like it can be really good. If we stay focused on what we did right, and work on what we did wrong, then yesterday's game won't be the fool's gold that some of those other wins were. Instead, a win over Nebraska can once again be the sound of a door getting kicked down announcing the arrival of the U.C.L.A. Bruins onto the football landscape once again. Obviously not yet to the heights of that win 24 years ago, but it can be an equally giant step into a new realm for this program.
This team and coaching staff show a lot of signs that things are headed the right way. And if we get back to those days like 1988, I hope we all appreciate it and celebrate it the way Nebraska does with their teams. Having over 4000 comments on this site on game day is a good start.
Imagine the Rose Bowl (or an on-campus stadium) packed to the brim with loyal Bruin fans in Powderkeg Blue, and seeng fans from other schools traveling to a U.C.L.A. game just to see what it is like, and having them come away with a huge appreciation for how we support Bruin football.
That DT from the 1988 win, Brian Kelly, and his beautiful family are in exile here in Colorado, too, just a few miles from me. We see them from time to time, and yesterday my family and several other families watched the game at his home. Brian and his wife, Joy, who was a friend of mine in college too, were great hosts, as always. They invited several other Bruins and their families and a houseful of kids. Included in this was one family of Nebraska fans. To no surprise, those Huskers were just as classy through the game and after as I have come to know. And watching the game with Brian and knowing he was one of the principles in that game in '88 reminded me of how good we had it as Bruin fans that day, and how much I want our fanbase to be able to enjoy that sense of pride and accomplishment and elation again, especially our younger Bruins who have not yet gotten to feel what that is like. Because it was awesome.