When UCLA, trailing by 4 points, moved within 6 yards of the goal line with 44 seconds left Saturday, it would have been difficult to find anybody in the Rose Bowl who didn’t think the Bruins were going to beat Washington State.
Among the faithful were the coach of the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, Terry Donahue, and his All-American quarterback, Troy Aikman.
“With 6 yards to go and with a quarterback like we have,” Donahue said, “we felt like we had a good chance to get it into the end zone.”
And Aikman said: “More often than not, we get the ball (in that situation), . . . we’re going to score.”
However, 4 consecutive passes by Aikman fell incomplete and along with them probably fell the Bruins’ chances of winning their first national championship since they shared their only title with Ohio State in 1954.
Washington State, which overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit, escaped with an improbable 34-30 victory, its first over the Bruins in Southern California after 9 consecutive losses since 1958.
The Bruins had opened the season with 7 victories for the first time since 1966. They are 4-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference, a game behind USC in the race for the Rose Bowl. Washington State improved to 5-3 and 2-3.
Donahue described the loss as one of the most disappointing of his career, which seemed to be nearing its zenith 2 weeks ago when the Bruins reached the top of the polls for the first time in Donahue’s 13 seasons.
It didn’t have to be.
The Bruins forced Washington State to punt with 59 seconds left, and UCLA cornerback Darryl Henley, who ranks third in the nation in punt returns, brought the ball back 31 yards to put the Bruins at Washington State’s 39-yard line.
Aikman, who had thrown an interception to end UCLA’s previous possession, then connected with tight end Charles Arbuckle on a 33-yard pass. The crowd of 51,970 erupted.
UCLA was only 6 yards and one more Aikman completion from preserving its unbeaten record and its hopes for a national championship. And the defense it lined up against was the Pac-10’s worst.
But, after Aikman threw incomplete on first down to stop the clock with 32 seconds left:
--Arbuckle was open for a second over the middle, but Aikman’s pass was batted down at the last second by free safety Artie Holmes.
--Aikman passed too high and through the outstretched hands of reserve fullback Maury Toy, who was hit by strong safety Ron Lee at the goal line as he tried to make the catch.
--Aikman, finding neither of his primary receivers open on fourth down, lofted a desperation pass into the near right corner of the end zone toward David Keating, but the ball never got to the junior split end because defender Vernon Todd knocked it down.
“We ran two quick slants,” Aikman said of the final play. “I looked for those first, but didn’t see anybody open. In fact, I didn’t see David open, either. I threw it up to take a shot at it.”
Said Keating: “When Troy came back to me, it was me or (Todd), and he had the inside position.”
The 4 consecutive incompletions, including the first-down throwaway, left Aikman with these passing statistics on a day when he also ran for a career-high 43 yards in 10 carries: 27 of 44 for 325 yards and 1 touchdown.
Aikman’s counterpart, Washington State’s Timm Rosenbach, was more efficient, completing 16 of 25 passes for 272 yards and 2 touchdowns.
And, of course, Rosenbach, the national leader in passing efficiency, also engineered the Cougars’ improbable comeback.
UCLA had increased its 20-6 halftime lead to 27-6 on its first possession of the second half, taking the kickoff and driving 71 yards in 7 plays to a touchdown, when tailback Eric Ball scored on an 8-yard run.
Ball, limited to 29 yards in 12 first-half carries, seemed to have come alive, carrying 3 times in the drive for 32 yards.
However, after Rosenbach passed 15 yards to Tim Stallworth for a touchdown that cut UCLA’s lead to 27-13 midway through the third quarter, Ball fumbled when he was hit by Holmes after making a 17-yard run.
Defensive end Marlin Brown recovered for the Cougars at the UCLA 37, Ball didn’t carry again and the UCLA ground game stagnated.
In the last 1 1/2 quarters, the Bruins ran for 23 yards in 11 carries as Donahue replaced Ball at tailback with Brian Brown and Shawn Wills.
“Right now, we’re a one-dimensional team,” Donahue said. “We’re having difficulty running the ball.”
Why did he bench Ball, who carried 4 times in the second half for 49 yards?
“I really felt we needed to try to get a big play out of a running back,” Donahue said. “We were starved for a long run and (for) something big to happen. I felt like we needed to see if Brian Brown could do something.
“Brian is the fastest of the tailbacks and probably has more of a tendency to make big plays.”
He didn’t, but neither did any of his teammates.
Meanwhile, Rosenbach wasted little time in cashing in on Ball’s fumble, driving the Cougars 37 yards to a touchdown in 56 seconds.
Washington State pulled within 27-20 with 6:45 left in the third quarter on a 6-yard run through the right side by running back Rich Swinton, a sophomore from Montclair Prep in Van Nuys who carried 27 times for 117 yards as a fill-in for the injured Pac-10 rushing leader, Steve Broussard.
The Cougars, who piled up 278 of their 427 total yards in the second half, caught the Bruins at 27-27 with 12 seconds left in the third quarter when Rosenbach and Stallworth combined on an 81-yard touchdown pass play.
Rosenbach, anticipating a blitz by the Bruins, called the play at the line of scrimmage and made a quick pass to the wide-open Stallworth at the Cougar 35. Stallworth, who had 7 receptions for 170 yards, eluded the diving grasp of defender Randy Beverly and sprinted the final 65 yards into the end zone.
The play lifted the Cougars.
“It gave us hope and made us feel like we could win,” Coach Dennis Erickson said.
Aikman, whose passing and running accounted for 368 of UCLA’s 485 total yards, drove the Bruins back down the field, completing 3 of 4 passes for 44 yards. The drive stalled at the Cougar 13, however, when two poorly thrown passes by Aikman fell incomplete.
The Bruins had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Alfredo Velasco, who gave UCLA a 30-27 lead with 11:39 left.
Unexpectedly, the Cougars took control at that point, driving down the field to the winning touchdown in 13 consecutive running plays.
“They got a bead on our defense,” Donahue said.
They also got some help from the overzealous Bruins.
A facemask penalty against defensive tackle Mike Lodish on the second play of the possession sent the Cougars on their way, giving them 15 yards.
Six more running plays netted 23 yards and put Washington State at the UCLA 41, where Rosenbach gained 4 yards on a first-down scramble before stepping out of bounds in front of the Cougar bench.
Rosenbach was greeted there by UCLA linebacker Carnell Lake, who put his shoulder into the Cougar quarterback and was called for a late hit.
Said Donahue of the personal fouls called against Lodish and Lake: “They’re disappointing, because they show a lack of discipline and a lack of poise. They really violate the spirit of team defense.
“They’re hard to tolerate and hard to accept.”
The call against Lake resulted in another 15-yard gain for the Cougars, who advanced to the UCLA 22. Runs by Swinton gained 5, 5 and 7 yards before Rosenbach gained 4 on a rollout.
Swinton scored his second touchdown on a 1-yard run, eluding Bruin linebacker Doug Kline as he made his way around the right side.
Washington State led, 34-30, with 6:21 left.
Brian Brown fumbled the ensuing kickoff, kicker Jason Hanson recovered for Washington State and the Cougars moved through the Bruins again.
“They’re hard to stop,” Donahue said of the Cougars, who rank third in the nation in total offense. “I tried to make that point at the beginning of the week, but quite frankly, I was pooh-poohed by some people.”
This drive was stopped, though, when Rosenbach fumbled the snap on 2nd-and-1 at the UCLA 16. Swinton recovered, but the play lost 3 yards.
Rosenbach then threw a pass out of the end zone on third down, and Hanson, whose kicks of 48 and 51 yards gave the Cougars their only first-half points, missed wide to the left on a 36-yard field-goal attempt.
UCLA still had a chance, but again the Bruins self-destructed. Aikman’s pass for Mike Farr was intercepted by Holmes, who made a diving catch.
“He made a great play to jump underneath it,” Aikman said of the omnipresent Holmes.
The Cougars celebrated. Less than 2 minutes remained.
Finally, though, the Bruins stopped the Cougars. They forced a punt, and Henley made his spectacular return, giving Aikman another chance.
He fell 6 yards short.
“We ran the plays we thought could get us into the end zone, and they defensed them well,” said Aikman, offering no excuses.
Had the Bruins been crushed by the weight of their No. 1 ranking?
Donahue didn’t think so.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly heavy burden to carry,” he said. “I’d sure like to carry it again.”
He is not likely to get another chance anytime soon.
Washington State had lost 20 consecutive games in Los Angeles, including 11 to USC, since beating UCLA at the Coliseum in 1958. . . . Washington State’s last victory over the Bruins was in 1979 at Pullman, Wash. . . . The loss ended an 11-game winning streak for UCLA at the Rose Bowl. . . . Troy Aikman’s 27 completions and 44 attempts were both career highs, and his 325 yards passing represented a season high and the second-highest total of his career. His second-quarter touchdown pass to Danny Thompson was his 20th of the season, leaving him one shy of the school record established by Tom Ramsey in 1982. . . . Charles Arbuckle caught 4 passes for 64 yards in his first appearance since he sprained ligaments in his left knee Sept. 17 against Cal State Long Beach.