As it was, the Bruins routed Washington State, 44-3, before 43,592 at the Rose Bowl.
Why so much euphoria after defeating a team they were expected to beat easily?
The victory ensured UCLA a winning season and, after two losing years, that was reason enough to celebrate.
The Bruins are 6-2 overall, 4-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference, with games remaining against Stanford, Oregon and USC.
If they keep winning, they probably will play in a prestigious bowl game.
UCLA shut down the Pac-10's top-rated passing offense. Drew Bledsoe, the Cougars' 6-foot-5 quarterback, was scrambling most of the game trying to avoid theBruins.
He got away occasionally, but he was sacked nine times for a 70-yard deficit.
"It was a defensive gem," said UCLA Coach Terry Donahue, who added that it was the Bruins'best all-around game of the year.
Tailback Kevin Williams, who wasn't expected to play extensively because of a sprained right ankle, had one of his best games.
He gained 112 yards in 16 carries and scored three touchdowns on plays of three, one and four yards.
Williams shared the tailback position with Kevin Smith, normally a fullback. Smith, a 6-foot-3, 256-pounder, gained 56 yards in 15 carries. He had sat out three games because of a sprained left knee, but had to play tailback because of the injury situation at the position.
Shawn Wills couldn't play because of a bruised knee. Nor could Ricky Davis, who has a hamstring injury.
"I asked Kevin (Williams) if he could play more extensively than we anticipated, and he said he could," Donahue said.
UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox didn't throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. However, he was effective.
Maddox completed 17 of 29 passes for 268 yards with one interception. His favorite receiver, split end Sean LaChapelle, caught seven passes for 74 yards.
Jim Bonds relieved Maddox early in the fourth quarter and completed two of four passes for 62 yards. Bonds was denied an apparent touchdown pass when flanker Paul Richardson dropped his throw at the Washington State 15-yard line.
No matter. UCLA was in control the entire game, leading by 20-0 at halftime and by 30-3 after three quarters.
The Cougars avoided their first shutout since 1984 when Jason Hanson, their long-range kicker, made a 51-yard field goal with at least 10 yards to spare.
He also tried a 69-yard field goal late in the game that would have set an NCAA record if he hadn't shanked the ball.
"We didn't get a monkey off our backs, but it was a hurdle (overcome)," Donahue said. "We were on a plateau in 1988 after winning seven bowl games, and then there was a drop off."
Maddox said that after UCLA lost to Cal, 27-24, on Oct. 5, the team talked about winning seven games in a row.
"We could either fall back in a rut after the Cal game or play hard every week," Maddox said. "Our players are concentrating more now and having fun. It's exciting because a lot of us have never been to a bowl game."
As for UCLA's No. 23 ranking, Maddox said: "We're a lot better team than that."
Donahue said the most improved area of his team is the defense. The Cougars rarely threatened.
The Bruins used five or six defensive backs to control Bledsoe and his receivers. UCLA strong safety Matt Darby said that having played Brigham Young and San Diego State, strong passing teams, helped the Bruins.
Bledsoe was under severe pressure most of the night. He completed 20 of 42 passes for 188 yards and threw two interceptions.
In addition to Williams' three touchdowns, fullback Maury Toy scored on a 13-yard run; seldom-used fullback Kevin Dickey, a walk-on sophomore, had a one-yard touchdown and Luis Perez kicked field goals of 44, 44 and 37 yards.
The 44-yard field goals were a career best for Perez and the first time he has made a field goal from farther than 40 yards.
By losing, Washington State dropped to 3-5 overall and 2-3 in the Pacific 10. . . . "It was our poorest performance of the year," Washington State Coach Mike Price said. "We couldn't do anything right. It has been a long time since we've played this poorly. I'm just so disappointed and frustrated that it's hard to reflect on the game."
UCLA had 37 first downs, a school record, breaking the mark of 36 set against Stanford in 1982. . . . UCLA had 598 yards in total offense to 221 for Washington State.
Strong safety Matt Darby on UCLA's defense: "We've matured a lot. We've made a lot of mistakes and have learned from them. If we hadn't made those mistakes we would be unbeaten right now."
It is the first time UCLA has won four consecutive games since the 1988 season. . . . It was UCLA's largest margin of victory since it beat Stanford, 49-0, in 1987 in Palo Alto. . . . Washington State had 33 yards rushing to UCLA's 268. . . . UCLA's Chad Rose had a personal-best punt return of 42 yards.
* RUSSELL WHITE: The Cal running back takes it out on one and all at USC, rushing for a school-record 229 yards and scoring three touchdowns. C7