Life at the top apparently agrees with UCLA, which began its tenure as the nation’s top-ranked team, as yet undetermined in length, with a 24-3 ambush of Arizona Saturday before a crowd of 49,922 at Arizona Stadium.
The Bruins, who moved to the top of the polls after Miami was upset last week by Notre Dame, showed no tentativeness in their lofty new position, which they had never reached before in Coach Terry Donahue’s 13 seasons.
They jumped out to a 14-0 lead on their first two possessions and were as dominant defensively as they have been all season.
Quarterback Troy Aikman had another big day, completing 20 of 29 passes for 283 yards and 3 touchdowns.
In fact, UCLA, which was playing as the nation’s top-ranked team for the first time since 1967, couldn’t have accomplished much more.
Well, maybe a little more.
The Bruins’ bid for their first shutout of the season ended when Arizona’s Darryl Lewis intercepted a pass by backup quarterback Ron Caragher, and Doug Pfaff kicked a 35-yard field goal with 55 seconds left, extending the Wildcats’ scoring streak to 187 games, the second-longest in National Collegiate Athletic Assn. history.
UCLA coaches and players were visibly upset along the sideline, but Donahue wasn’t about to question the tactics of Arizona Coach Dick Tomey, an old friend.
“I think each coach does what he needs to do for his team, and I think each coach should make that decision independent of any outside criticism from anybody,” Donahue said. “Sometimes in a game you do what you think is best for your team, and if Dick thought that was best for his team, then that’s his decision. It’s not my place to second-guess him.”
By the time Caragher’s pass was intercepted with 3:18 left, UCLA already had extended its own scoring streak to 200 games and was assured of opening the season with 7 consecutive victories for the first time since 1966.
UCLA improved to 4-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference. Arizona is 4-3 and 2-2 and is all but eliminated from the Rose Bowl race.
The Wildcats were stymied most of the day by the Bruin defense.
Said Donahue: “This is not the kind of offense that I anticipated being able to corral as well as we corralled it today, especially in light of its offensive performance a week ago, which was particularly impressive.”
Last week, Arizona piled up 472 yards in a 45-28 victory over Washington State.
UCLA limited the Pac-10’s No. 1 rushing team to 104 running yards in 49 attempts, more than 170 yards below its average.
Donahue challenged his defenders before the game, telling them they had not reached their potential since last month’s 41-28 victory over Nebraska.
And on a day when the Bruin running game had problems of its own, gaining only 90 yards, the UCLA defense responded.
“We wanted to come out and dominate the game and show, ‘Hey, we’re No. 1 and we’re ready to play,’ ” Bruin defensive tackle Mike Lodish said.
Donahue called it “a magnificent overall performance by our defensive unit. We really had good shape on the ball, and we really swarmed well.”
Donahue said the Bruins were eager to play after moving to No. 1 this week, following 5 weeks as No. 2.
That was apparent after Arizona drove 50 yards in its first possession, only to have Pfaff miss a 40-yard field-goal attempt.
Although UCLA’s first 4 offensive plays included Aikman and Eric Ball running into each other on a handoff that lost 1 yard, a dropped pass by David Keating and an illegal block for a 15-yard penalty, the Bruins drove 77 yards in an impressive 17-play sequence that ate up 7 minutes 35 seconds.
Aikman’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Danny Thompson ended a drive in which UCLA was 3 for 3 on 3rd-down conversions and also got a 1-yard dive from Ball on 4th and 1 at the Arizona 4-yard line.
Arizona’s next possession included 3 plays for 2 yards, and Aikman and the Bruins were soon on the move again.
A 72-yard, 12-play drive consumed 5:19 and ended when Aikman found Keating on the left side of the end zone with a 5-yard touchdown pass.
After the Bruins’ first 2 possessions, Aikman had completed 12 of 15 passes for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns. UCLA led, 14-0, with 12:46 left in the first half.
“Without putting up a billboard, they structurally tell you, ‘Hey, we’re going to stop the run,’ ” Donahue said of the Wildcats. “But when they do stop the run, if you have a good quarterback, you have a chance to hit some passes. And we have a great quarterback.”
Aikman exploited the most vulnerable part of Arizona’s defense.
“We thought they were going to play us soft, and early in the game they did,” Aikman said. “They played very soft in the corners, and we were throwing outside routes.”
After that, the Bruin offense shut down operations for a while, but Arizona’s offense continued to be frustrated by the UCLA defense.
Finally, on their last possession of the half, the Wildcats drove 49 yards to UCLA’s 25-yard line.
Then on a first-down play, UCLA linebacker Carnell Lake found his way into the Arizona backfield and deflected a pitchout by quarterback Ronald Veal. The ball was recovered by Arizona halfback David Eldridge, but the play lost 14 yards and halted the Wildcats’ momentum.
“We had a missed signal,” Tomey said. “We called a trap play, and Ron ran the wrong play. If we had executed, we might have had a chance.”
UCLA increased its lead to 17-0 midway through the third quarter on a 50-yard field goal by Alfredo Velasco, the longest of his career. Aikman had positioned the junior kicker for the attempt, passing for 54 yards in a 50-yard drive in which the Bruins’ only 2 running plays netted minus 4 yards.
Later in the quarter, Aikman had a pass intercepted for only the 5th time this season when Lewis caught a long throw intended for Mike Farr.
“I didn’t see the guy dropping off,” Aikman said of Lewis, a sophomore from West Covina. “It was just a bad read on my part.”
Arizona still couldn’t move, though, and so, at the end of UCLA’s next possession, the Wildcats sent their defense after Bruin punter Harold Barkate, whose kick was blocked by the charging Lewis, sprinting in from the right side.
Scott Geyer recovered for Arizona at UCLA’s 27-yard line, but the Wildcats were unable to convert Lewis’ big play into points.
On 3rd and goal at UCLA’s 3-yard line, halfback Mario Hampton fumbled when he was met head-on by UCLA linebacker Doug Kline. Nose guard Jim Wahler recovered for the Bruins.
And the Wildcats were knocked out soon after, when Aikman and tight end Corwin Anthony connected on a 55-yard touchdown pass play midway in the fourth quarter.
All that was left was to preserve the shutout, which the Bruins were unable to do.
“We wanted the goose egg, no doubt,” Kline said.
Still, it was an impressive debut for the Bruins in an unaccustomed role as the nation’s No. 1 team and the team to beat for the national championship.
“I thought we handled that very well,” Donahue said.
Although the Wildcats kept alive a scoring streak that dates back to 1971, they still fell considerably short of catching the Bruins.
“Evidently, we didn’t get enough,” Veal observed.
USC had a 186-game scoring streak ended in 1983. . . . UCLA has outscored its opponents, 90-6, in the first quarter this season. . . . UCLA linebacker Eric Smith, who returned to practice Wednesday, played for the first time since suffering a concussion in the Nebraska game Sept. 10. . . . Eric Ball, UCLA’s leading rusher with 659 yards in 136 attempts, carried 11 times for 10 yards. . . . Freshman Shawn Wills was the Bruins’ leading rusher, carrying 3 times in the second half for 36 yards. . . . Arizona quarterback Ronald Veal completed only 9 of 27 passes for 115 yards. . . . The last time Arizona failed to score a touchdown was in a 12-7 victory over Washington State in 1985.