The end zone was spread out in front of him but as Charles Arbuckle pulled in the pass from UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, defensive back Vernon Todd of Washington State dived and grabbed the tight end's arms.
"He was pulling me from behind and the ball was kind of coming loose, so if I'd have kept going, I'd have lost the ball," Arbuckle said. "I tried to turn around and tuck it away, but that gave him a chance to pull me down."
After a 33-yard gain, Arbuckle fell to the Rose Bowl turf at the six-yard line. The Bruins, trailing by four points, had 44 seconds to score. Four incomplete passes later, the ball hadn't moved and UCLA was a 34-30 loser.
The Bruins' perfect record was no more.
If only the pass to Arbuckle had covered six more yards . . .
That play last October typified a season that might have been for the Bruins, who lost their No. 1 ranking that day and were never the same, and for Arbuckle, who would have found it easier to accept an injury-marred season if UCLA had stayed in the race for the national championship.
Arbuckle, though, prefers to look at it this way: If he had fumbled, he would have felt even worse.
He views his career, which has been plagued by injuries since he moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore, from the same perspective. Two years ago, Arbuckle missed five games because of an injury to his right knee that twice required arthroscopic surgery. Last season, he missed four games and most of a fifth because of an injury to his left knee.
Still, the former high school All-American from Willowridge High in Sugar Land, Tex., is regarded as one of the nation's premier tight ends as he begins his final season in Westwood.
Mel Kiper Jr., a National Football League draft analyst, wrote in a national magazine that Arbuckle is "ready to establish himself as one of the country's better tight ends in quite some time."
Another magazine lists Arbuckle among college football's top five professional prospects and several others have listed him as a preseason All-American.
"I've been very fortunate because, in spite of all the injuries, I've been able to come back," he said. "Some players aren't able to do that. And then to still be ranked as high as I am as a prospective pro talent--I feel very blessed.
"I wouldn't have said that while I was injured. It's been real hard, dealing with the injuries, but I've been blessed to be able to keep coming back stronger each time. I've just had a little bit of bad luck."
Not everybody, though, regards Arbuckle as a great pro prospect.
"The concern I have is with the knee injuries," said Joel Buchsbaum of Pro Football Weekly. "He has never played the whole year. Yes, they were minor, so it's not a long-range thing, but are they going to persist? If he can't make it through 12 games in college, can he make it through 20 in the pros?"
Buchsbaum also said that the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Arbuckle is not considered a physical blocker and that he might be a tad small to play tight end in the National Football League.
As a receiver, though, Arbuckle is swift and sure-handed.
"He really has a knack for finding the open spaces," said UCLA's new offensive coordinator, Greg Robinson, who also will call on two other highly regarded tight ends, juniors Corwin Anthony and Randy Austin. "To his position, he has speed like Flipper (Anderson, a former UCLA wide receiver) had to his position.
"Plus, once he gets the ball, he's pretty elusive for a guy that big."
One of only four players in the last four seasons who have played for the Bruins as true freshmen, Arbuckle caught 20 passes in his first six games as a sophomore before tearing cartilage in his right knee while making a sliding catch against Oregon. At the time, he was the Bruins' leading receiver, ahead of wide receivers Paco Craig and Anderson, but he caught only two more passes the rest of the season.
Last season, Arbuckle caught five passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns in an early season victory over Nebraska. But against Cal State Long Beach a week later, he strained ligaments in his left knee when he was hit by two defenders while making a catch. He missed the Bruins' next four games.
"I really don't think about that because the more you think about it, the more it's likely to happen," said Arbuckle, who in his career has averaged 12.8 yards on 40 receptions. "You've just got to put it out of your mind, stay strong and believe that you can take on anything."
Still, whenever he watches football on television, Arbuckle is reminded of his own injuries. Whenever anybody gets hurt, Arbuckle imagines himself being helped off the field.
"But it's nothing that lingers," he said. "It's not a constant thought. I couldn't play the sport if that was the case."
With his senior season approaching--the Bruins open against Tennessee Sept. 9 at the Rose Bowl--Arbuckle made a special effort in the weight room this summer. He worked especially hard trying to build his strength and improve his quickness, he said.
So obsessive was he that when Hurricane Chantal blew through Houston this month and Arbuckle was unable to leave the house for his regular workout, he didn't know what to do with himself.
As a senior, he said, "You kind of find yourself waiting for the next workout."
And as a senior, Arbuckle will work not with Aikman, who now plays with the Dallas Cowboys, but with a young, inexperienced quarterback--either sophomore Jim Bonds or redshirt freshman Bret Johnson. Arbuckle, though, believes that playing with a rookie quarterback will be to his advantage.
"It's easier to throw the tight-end routes," he said.
Arbuckle only hopes that he's on the field to run them.
"I want people to see how good I really am," he said.
As long as tailbacks Brian Brown, Shawn Wills and Kevin Williams stay away from injuries, Coach Terry Donahue will expand Brown's role, using the 5-foot-10, 187-pound junior also as a slotback and flanker. "We'd like to highlight his talents--catching and running with the ball--and at the same time have the threat of a Kevin Williams or a Shawn Wills in our backfield," Donahue said. According to the Sporting News, UCLA has the "nation's finest stable of running backs."
Emphasizing at a press conference last week that UCLA's 6-foot quarterbacks, Jim Bonds and Bret Johnson, are not too short to be successful, Donahue said: "Quarterbacks on the short side can certainly be successful--Pat Haden, Doug Flutie, Sammy Baugh." Called out a reporter: " Sammy Baugh? He was 6-2." Said Donahue, laughing: "Well, I was close."