Rose in Hand, Fiesta on Mind
The two gentlemen from the Tournament of Roses football committee were at the 47-yard line as the Husky Stadium scoreboard flickered to 0:00 late Saturday afternoon. They stood with Athletic Director Pete Dalis as UCLA completed its 36-24 victory over Washington and handed out metal stick pins of their familiar bowl insignia. No need.
Dalis came prepared. He had brought a whole packet of dime-sized, adhesive-backed fabric roses up from Los Angeles, then to the game that would give the Bruins the chance to clinch at least a New Year’s Day invitation to Pasadena, just in case their dream date didn’t call. One went on his lapel with about five minutes left.
The Bruins were proud to clinch the Pacific 10 Conference title as Chris Sailer kicked five field goals and the offensive line shut down the No. 1 sack unit in the nation, honored to have earned a spot in the Rose Bowl at the very least. It’s simply not their preference.
So no one handed out long-stemmed roses in the cramped visitor’s locker room.
No one boasted that “This is what we’ve been playing for.”
No one went beyond that this was one of their goals.
“We know their sights are set on No. 1 and all that,” said Mel Cohen, one of the understanding committee members, “but if something should happen, we look forward to having them.”
Something like UCLA not going to the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl, which remained a possibility on the same day Tennessee and Kansas State dodged upsets, a particularly significant victory for the latter since beating Nebraska also provides the Wildcats with a greatly needed boost in strength of schedule. For that outcome, the Bruins will have to wait and see.
For today, all they know is they are conference champions. That’s for now.
And for forever.
“I think people celebrated for a little while,” flanker Danny Farmer said after contributing four catches worth 134 yards. “It is really special. The Rose Bowl is a special bowl and winning the Pac-10 is not an easy feat. We’re very proud we won it.”
But . . .
“But our goals are higher this year,” he said after UCLA’s 19th consecutive victory.
Added Ryan Roques, who had two huge returns, an 81-yarder on a kickoff that set up Sailer’s first field goal and a 77-yarder on a punt for a touchdown: “That’s all I’ve heard since I got here. Rose Bowl. Rose Bowl. Rose Bowl. Of course, we’ll be really happy to play for the national championship.”
They have this one for starters, earned not only Saturday before 72,391 on a day that stayed free of rain and wind, but in months gone by. The team that has been deservedly chastised for delicately stepping around Stanford and Oregon State instead of stepping on them is, after all, the same one that beat No. 10 Arizona on the road despite the absence of its starting tailback and then the very next week beat No. 11 Oregon.
If the Bruins (9-0, 7-0 in Pac-10) did not revel in the moment, they also did not lose sight of it, appreciating the accomplishment. None of them have played in the Rose Bowl game, if that’s what it comes down to. None of them have ever won the Pac-10 title outright, having shared it last season with Washington State but losing out in a tiebreaker because of an opening loss to the Cougars.
No UCLA team had stood alone atop the conference, with a better record than everyone, since 1985, and that has only happened three times at the school since the old Pacific 8 was formed in 1968 and five times in all dating to 1960. It could happen this season, an outright title, with either a victory over USC next Saturday in Pasadena or an Arizona loss to Arizona State.
“It’s not just the Rose Bowl appearance,” tailback Jermaine Lewis said. “We clinched that we’re the Pac-10 champs. That’s one of the goals that we set at the start of the season.”
The only thing that made it better was the setting--the same Husky Stadium where in 1996 the Bruins lost, 41-21, a beating that has stayed with them, and where the last two visits have resulted in them being outscored, 78-31.
UCLA was in control the entire game, but not as much as it should have been. Twice in the opening quarter, the Bruins had first down at the Washington 12 but had to settle for Sailer chip shots, 27- and 25-yard field goals. But when Roques went 77 yards on the punt return with 41 seconds remaining in the first half, the lead was 20-10.
It was an insurmountable 26-10 after Sailer converted twice more in the third quarter, from 25 yards again and then from 47 that marked his longest of the season. The Bruins eventually pushed the advantage to 33-17 early in the final period and then 36-17 on the last of the five field goals, before the Huskies got a meaningless six-yard scoring pass with 45 seconds remaining.
A third consecutive loss had left Washington 5-5, sending it to the Apple Cup next week at Washington State without a winning record for the first time since 1976. The Bruins’ victory sent them onward with great spirits and, for the moment, even greater possibilities than Pasadena on Jan. 1.
“It’s a weird situation,” split end Brian Poli-Dixon said. “People are excited to go to the Rose Bowl and that’s one of the reasons you come here. Don’t get us wrong. We are excited. But it’s not over.”