Can we get this wacky college football season squared away right now? Here's the plan: Coach Terry Donahue and his flashy UCLA Bruins hop into their Porsches and BMWs and drive east, while Jimmy Johnson and his ruthless Miami Hurricanes pile into their Ferraris and Cigarette boats and head west. The teams meet somewhere around, say, Galveston, Texas (gotta have water access), and play each other weekly for the next three months until we know who is No. 1.
Like it? Well, of course Oklahoma and Clemson and Georgia and Southern Cal and maybe even Notre Dame can sit in the stands and watch. They can even jump in and play UCLA or Miami, if either team should somehow falter.
But Nebraska can't come. No, sir. The Bruins detasseled them 41-28 in the Rose Bowl last Saturday. As you will recall, Nebraska was the team that always beat Donahue's squad by scoring 42 points to whatever the Westwood weaklings could muster. (Since 1983 that has been 10, 3 and 33 points.) But this time UCLA scored 28 points before the Huskers could rub the smog from their eyes and then spent three quarters basically running out the clock.
"It seemed like we just blinked and they were way ahead," said Nebraska safety Mark Blazek after the game. "It's something that doesn't happen to Nebraska. It definitely was embarrassing."
September 18, 1988
The feeling in the other locker room was euphoria. It was Donahue's first win ever against Nebraska, his 100th career win and an official statement that UCLA can play the muscle game. "It gets rid of that stigma that we can't play with the Big Eight," said Donahue.
Added Bruin quarterback Troy Aikman, who helped his Heisman campaign by completing 13 of 22 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns and had just one interception, "We had something to prove, that we could play with the big boys."
Big versus little, strong versus weak, manly versus effete, Lincoln versus L.A.—those were the themes batted around during game week. Correctly or not, UCLA has long been seen as a speedy, finesse team well-suited to its powder-blue jerseys—a "California" team that has trouble with tough, lunch-bucket, prairie-type guys. Nebraska, on the other hand, has come to embody meat, muscle and the subtlety of a Great Plains cattle stampede. All you have to do is look at the rosters to catch the drift: Nebraska has Sam Schmidt, Ken Clark, Jake Young, Tom Punt and Bob Sledge: UCLA has Sean LaChapelle, Sanjay Lai, Emmanuel Onwutuebe, Sterling Coberly and Alfredo Velasco.
The philosophical debate flared in the vast Rose Bowl parking lot before the game. One UCLA booster carried an ear of corn in a hangman's noose and yelled, "Go home, farmers! Go back to the drought!" A Nebraska fan's T-shirt taunted the beach-bronzed Bruin fans with the warning: THIS AIN'T NO #*%@& WEENIE ROAST.
But the ultimate insult came from a UCLA fan in response to a Nebraska backer's "Go Big Red!" chant. Looking stunned, the Bruin fan gasped, "I didn't know we were playing Oklahoma today!"
Hey, no fair. Oklahoma is Nebraska's personal dream-wrecker, it's own razor-fingered Freddy Krueger. The Huskers have been so successful under Tom Osborne (148-35-2 in 16 seasons) that their late-season games with the Sooners are what everybody measures them by. And Nebraska has lost the last four Oklahoma matches and is 4-12 overall against the Sooners during Osborne's reign. Consequently, Nebraska is getting a reputation as a team that fades at the wire. The team has gone to a bowl game every season since Osborne took over in 1973, but only once—1982—did the Cornhuskers beat Oklahoma and win a bowl game in the same season.
"We start fast because we have two full scout teams and our No. 1 and 2 offenses will both run 100 snaps in a practice," says Osborne calmly, as he says everything. "Most teams get only 50 or 60. I don't think we get worse as the season progresses. I think closing slowly has something to do with playing good teams at the end."
Indeed. But now Nebraska has lost a big one early, too. The Huskers are 2-1 this season and, amazingly, have lost three of their last six games.
The UCLA offense, which started tentatively in last year's game in Lincoln, came out in a fury this time. On the sixth play of the day, Aikman hit tight end Charles Arbuckle over the middle for a 57-yard touchdown. The play should have gone for five yards, but the 233-pound Arbuckle plowed over All-Big Eight linebacker LeRoy Etienne and outran cornerback Charles Fryar to the end zone.
Then in rapid-fire succession UCLA scored three more times—on a 50-yard run by backup tailback Shawn Wills, on a three-yard pass from Aikman to Arbuckle and on a 75-yard punt return by cornerback Darryl Henley. And that's not including a 54-yard scoring run by starting tailback Eric Ball that was called back because of a holding penalty. Not only did UCLA look faster and more sophisticated than Nebraska (in the first quarter alone Aikman completed five of five to four different receivers for 101 yards and two scores), but the Bruins also looked—wait a minute here, all you punk surfers and Wilshire Boulevard dandies—stronger than the Huskers. "We just got a good whipping," said Osborne after the game. "UCLA was very physical. They knocked us off the ball about the whole half."
The drama behind that statement was set up the previous Monday when Donahue told the press that some of the old Nebraska teams had been bizarrely strong. "In [1983 and 1984], those were the most unusual teams I've played in 13 years of coaching," Donahue said. "They were not a normal college team. They had unusually big, active and fast players.... You can take that for what it's worth. You can interpret that any way you want."
Well, there was only one way to interpret the coach's remarks—Nebraska players used steroids. The veiled charge upset Osborne, who called Donahue to talk about the matter. Donahue denied any malicious intent. "If I would have wanted to charge Nebraska with being on steroids," he said, "I would have said, 'Those——are on steroids.' "
To say Nebraska is sensitive to charges of steroid use among its players is like saying Elizabeth Taylor is sensitive to charges of being fat. In the past, Husker players have admitted using steroids (Dean Steinkuhler, a guard from 1981-83, told SI that he was a regular user during his junior and senior years, and last week, Bill Lewis, a Los Angeles Raider center and a Cornhusker from 1983 to '85, told the Los Angeles Times that some of his teammates were using steroids).
On Friday, while the Huskers practiced in shorts in the empty Rose Bowl, Nebraska strength and conditioning coach Boyd Epley talked passionately about the unfairness of any new allegations: "I have said on TV that if any of my staff ever recommends steroid use to any of our players, I will resign immediately. As far as we know, with our best efforts, we don't have players on steroids. We still hear all the rumors and it eats away at you. People recruit against us by saying to kids, 'You go to Nebraska and they'll put you on steroids.' It takes away from the hard work of our players."
Epley added firmly that not all Huskers are as strong as oxen. He pointed at one huge player running through drills. "For example, look at number 70, Doug Glaser, a starting offensive lineman. He's 6'7", 295, biggest guy on the team. Across the country the average bench press for offensive linemen is probably 400-410. Glaser benches 299."
Ah, what a curious world college football has become. Here's a strength coach proudly pointing out how weak one of his best players is.
In the game on Saturday, UCLA simply made it clear how much talent it has, the result of recruiting coups by the glib, friendly Donahue. Says Osborne with a shrug, "We know how good their players are because we went after a lot of them."
The tailback position offers a nice example of the Bruins' depth. Explosive Eric Ball (35 carries for 148 yards) spent three years waiting for Gaston Green to leave, only to find he now must worry about freshman Wills. "I gotta fight for my position every day," Ball said wearily after the game. And Wills (four carries for 73 yards) actually would stack up behind Brian Brown and fellow freshman Kevin Williams if both weren't out with injuries. Williams, from Spring, Texas, was generally regarded as the nation's top prep running back last season. That he is at UCLA helps explain why the Southwest Conference is in decline.
At the half UCLA was up 38-13, with an 11-yard Aikman TD pass to split end David Keating and a 42-yard field goal by Velasco added to the 28 first-quarter points. That quarter may have been the most nearly flawless UCLA ever has put together in a big game. On Henley's TD punt return, for example, the line of Bruin blockers down the left sideline resembled a light-blue picket fence. "I couldn't believe it," said the little (5'10", 165) return man with the braces on his teeth and skates on his feet.
Henley, a cornerback, was cranked up because he and the rest of the secondary allowed Nebraska quarterback Steve Taylor, a running threat, to throw five touchdown passes against UCLA last year. "We blew our run-pass keys," said Henley of that game. "All the secondary guys who were seniors last year called me before this game and said, 'Make sure the new DBs understand.' "
This time they did. UCLA played smart and held Taylor to 14 completions in 29 attempts for 125 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Taylor, who also led Nebraska in rushing with 95 yards and a TD on 14 carries, is a fine player, but his team never had a chance. Indeed, Nebraska's first score—with UCLA ahead 28-0 in the second quarter—was a gift of stunning proportions, handed out by referees who must have been afraid ABC-TV wasn't going to get its anticipated ratings.
Safety Blazek intercepted an Aikman pass and fell to the ground at the Nebraska 25, touching first his left knee, then his butt, then his right knee. He got up, waved the ball, and casually jogged toward the end zone. He knew, as did everyone watching the game, that he was down—but what the heck, might as well head toward pay dirt 75 yards away. Blazek casually crossed the goal line, with nobody chasing him, and the refs signaled...touchdown.
"It was an oddball-type deal," Blazek offered weakly after the game.
"It hurt us. It stunned us," said Donahue. "There were whistles. We weren't about to tackle him."
"We know we were wrong," apologized referee James Sprenger later.
Fortunately it didn't matter, and there is no doubt now that UCLA is a team to be reckoned with. Nebraska, on the other hand, is a team of uncertainty. "I had a lot of friends here," said Husker defensive tackle Willie Griffin, who hails from nearby Monrovia. He scanned the postgame stadium. "I don't see any now."