Sometimes it just doesn't pay to get an early start on the weekend. Most especially it didn't pay for highly ranked Arizona State to jump the gun on the first full weekend of the college season. Playing on Thursday night, the Sun Devils were trampled by 7½-point underdog UCLA to set the scene for later losses by such preseason favorites as Alabama, Texas, USC, Florida, Notre Dame and Tennessee and a near tumble by Nebraska, which was tied. And who in Tempe, early on that deceptively placid evening, would have guessed what was to come. The packed stands in Sun Devil Stadium looked like a field of desert goldenrod as thousands of yellow pompons waved in unison. Warm breezes gently swayed the giant crane that suspended a television camera high above the north-end bleachers, and the usual party of ticketless adventurers had scaled the small mountain behind the press box called Pikers' Peak for a free view of the game. It was a picturesque setting in which host Arizona State, holder of a 13-game win streak, hoped to beat UCLA and gain some national recognition for itself and the Western Athletic Conference as a whole.
Instead, it turned out to be a beautiful evening for UCLA's running attack and swarming defense, and an impressive debut by the new Bruin head coach, 32-year-old Terry Donahue. Quarterback Jeff Dankworth and Halfbacks Wendell Tyler and Theotis Brown veered through and around ASU for 375 yards, the defense refused to let ASU past the Bruin 44 in the first three quarters and UCLA flew home later that night with a 28-10 victory over the team that had been ranked in the top five by most preseason polls.
"Are you nervous?" Donahue had asked Brown the day before the game.
"Yes, I am," said the 6'3", 218-pound sophomore who had served most of last season as practice-field cannon fodder.
September 19, 1976
"Well, so am I," said Donahue, who last year coached UCLA's offensive line.
They both had reason to be uneasy. Having lost five of its finest players and its head coach, Dick Vermeil (to the Philadelphia Eagles), UCLA figured to be much weaker than it was when it upset Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. For its part, ASU was coming off an unbeaten season, had defeated Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and was ranked second in both wire services' final ratings. Frank Kush had been voted 1975 Coach of the Year, had a career 12-6-1 record vs. Pac 8 teams and national TV was covering a regular-season ASU game for only the second time ever. (Network moguls have heard the one about the WAC encompassing 4% of the nation's population and 96% of its rattlesnakes.)
"We have a chance to accomplish a lot this year," said Kush, whose winning percentage of .793 is second best among active major-college coaches. "But if we lose this game, we'll be struggling back again. If we win we'll be a contender for the national title."
Still, Kush had publicly disparaged both his offense and his defense, criticism Sun Devil fans dismissed as the usual preseason pessimism. But Kush didn't attain his 151-39-1 record by taking any game lightly, and the day before the Sun Devils met UCLA he was busy getting on his game face, next to which a Marine drill instructor's grimace looks like a sunny smile. ABC planned to tape its introduction of the Sun Devil players that afternoon but made the mistake of not being ready at the agreed-upon time. After fuming for a minute or two, Kush looked at his wristwatch and growled, "One minute." Then, "Thirty seconds." When Kush's countdown was done, with ABC still not ready, he ordered his troops back to the dressing room, saying in effect, phooey to national television, he wasn't going to lose one more microsecond of preparation time.
UCLA got a break with the weather. September nights in Tempe can be like the inside of a blast furnace, the devastating dry heat driving the uninitiated to crawl under the nearest rock with those rattlesnakes. "I thought it would be 100° and we'd be dead," said Donahue with a smile. His is a handsome face, unscarred in his career as a 197-pound defensive tackle at UCLA and his one amateur boxing match (he won).
Arizona State's game plan was not a bad one. Kush and his assistants knew that Tyler, UCLA's Heisman Trophy candidate, had gained 100 yards or more in four straight games and was only 317 yards short of Kermit Johnson's UCLA career rushing record. They wanted to take Tyler away from UCLA, and most of the time they did by keying two linebackers on him (he ended up with 93 yards on 21 carries). All well and good, but Dankworth ran for 155 yards and Brown for 127.
On UCLA's second possession Dank-worth, a senior who played in the shadow of All-America John Sciarra the past two seasons, went left on a keeper for 32 yards. At the start of the second quarter, trailing 3-0 (a Brown fumble helped set up a 24-yard Sun Devil field goal by Coach Kush's son, Dan), UCLA went ahead to stay when Dankworth capped an 80-yard Bruin drive by faking a hand-off, darting through a huge hole in the right side of the line and sprinting untouched 32 yards to a touchdown.
Later in the second quarter UCLA took a 14-3 lead on another 80-yard TD drive, the key play being Brown's 35-yard burst through the right side and down the sideline to the ASU 12. Four plays later it was first and goal to go, and the UCLA coaches signaled for Dankworth to try the right side again. He called the correct play in the huddle but got mixed up after the snap, went left and scored while every other Bruin and most of the Sun Devils went right.
UCLA drove 79 yards to a third TD in the third quarter, and Brown's 26-yard touchdown run a few possessions later made the score 28-3. While Brown was romping, Tyler was laughing at the two Sun Devils who were still dogging his every step. Donahue played his subs in the final period, and ASU's lone touchdown, a 15-yard Dennis Sproul-to-John Jefferson pass play, was of no consequence.
There was some predictable crowing among the UCLA players, who had felt their team had been overlooked by the pollsters (the highest the Bruins had been ranked in any major poll was 14th by UPI), and Donahue was naturally elated at getting his first victory, but he was annoyed at UCLA's sloppy ballhandling. (The Bruins had fumbled five times.) "I do not believe we handled the ball like a big-league team," he said. "The defensive team won this football game. It went in there time and again under bad circumstances and did beautifully. I hope this is the start of a tradition."
He should hope that it is an instant tradition, for high-scoring Arizona visits L.A. this weekend and in two weeks Donahue and his Bruins travel to Columbus for a return match with Ohio State and Woody Hayes.
As for Arizona State, it's back under the rocks with the rattlers—at least for the time being.