From the humble beginnings of his birth in an Arkansas refugee camp in 1975, Texas A&M; junior inside linebacker Dat Nguyen has been overcoming obstacles and expectations.
At barely 6 feet and 216 pounds, his modesty is sincere. “You use whatever advantage you have,” he said. “I do whatever I can to get to the ball.”
UCLA players past and present were gushing with praise Thursday after the extraordinary defensive performance by Nguyen. He set a Cotton Bowl record with 20 tackles, including 15 solo, in the Bruins’ 29-23 victory.
“That dude was all over the field,” said former UCLA All-American offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, now with the Baltimore Ravens. “I was on the sideline, ‘Who’s blocking that guy?’ ”
Andy Meyers, UCLA’s 6-6, 306-pound offensive guard, tried to block Nguyen.
“Dat Nguyen was a phenomenal player,” Meyers said. “I got a couple good blocks on him, but if I didn’t get him down on the first hit, he was off to the races.”
Using quickness, instincts and spontaneity, Nguyen inspired an Aggie defense that held fifth-ranked UCLA (10-2) to seven points in the first half. This was a Bruin offensive unit averaging 40.7 points, third-best in the nation.
“They took us out of our offense,” Meyers said. “They took us out of our whole screen scheme.”
Nguyen intercepted a screen pass from Cade McNown in the first quarter, then lateraled the ball to safety Brandon Jennings, who ran 64 yards for a touchdown.
Aggie fans in the stands were so excited they kissed their dates with the passion of a prom night.
“We ran a blitz, but I bailed out because I smelled something funny,” Nguyen said. “Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time. After I made the play, I saw a receiver coming and pitched it out to a speedster [Jennings], because I’m not that fast.”
There he goes again, Nguyen trying to be humble. All he has done is become the first Texas A&M; player to lead the team in tackles three straight years. His two sisters living in Orange County and watching him on TV must have been as proud as his coach, R.C. Slocum.
“He’s a fun player to be around,” Slocum said. “He plays with great intensity. He pretty much does that against everyone.”
Nguyen keeps finding ways to overcome his lack of size. Asset No. 1 is his quickness, which creates problems for blockers, as UCLA players discovered repeatedly.
“He’s a hard guy to catch,” tight end Mike Grieb said. “It feels like he’s running downhill all the time. You’re running a specific play and he’s not where you thought he’d be.”
Said fullback Craig Walendy: “He’s a heck of an athlete. I looked up one time [at the scoreboard monitor] and saw he had 12 tackles and that was the third quarter. I thought that was last year’s stats.”
Texas A&M; held a 16-7 halftime lead, but Nguyen credited the Bruins for making effective offensive adjustments in the second half to better protect McNown, who was sacked only once in the final 30 minutes after five sacks in the first half.
Nguyen is the one who charged ahead into the center of UCLA’s line and almost prevented McNown from gaining a crucial first down on a fourth-and-one quarterback sneak from the Aggie 40 with 2:50 left. McNown made it by inches.
“I tried to pop him,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen has been popping players since he began playing football in the eighth grade. His parents escaped the war in Southeast Asia and eventually settled in Rockport, a south Texas shrimping and fishing community.
Nguyen has become part of Texas lore.
“This is the first time I’ve ever played on New Year’s Day,” he said.
His football days won’t be ending soon.
“People who make tackles like that, you’re going to [find a place to play],” said Ogden, a Pro Bowl tackle.