It has been committed to memory, and to posterity.
Bob Toledo made sure by plucking out the greatest moments of the greatest victory of his coaching career, laying them end to end on a tape and then showing it to his UCLA Bruins back in August. He probably will show it again every August.
For the recent additions to the team, the freshmen and sophomores who may not have been in the Rose Bowl that 70-degree afternoon on Nov. 23, 1996, it serves as the policy statement, about not surrendering and all that other cliche-as-truth stuff.
For those who were there for UCLA’s 48-41 victory--those who lived it--it serves as a reminder of the day an entire program changed course.
Not that the veterans need it. Coming back from 17 points down with 6 1/2 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, blocking a field goal that would have won the game for the Trojans at the end of regulation, going into double overtime and winning in definitely the longest and maybe the greatest Bruin triumph in the glorious rivalry--they don’t need a VCR for that.
Life-altering events tend to get burned into the mind, after all. So they will recite specific plays and sights and sounds, sometimes in lusty tones that belie the fact that there have been several grand afternoons since.
The Bruins’ 19-game winning streak, the No. 3 ranking in the polls, the No. 2 spot in the bowl championship series ratings, the elevation to one of the top programs in the country by any number, the Pacific 10 championship earned last week?
It all started that day almost exactly two years ago.
Not literally, because the Bruins did start the next season, 1997, by losing the first two games. But that’s when everything changed. That fourth quarter against USC when a loss would have meant the end of the five-game winning streak in the series, but otherwise only the difference between a 5-6 finish and 4-7 in Toledo’s first season.
“I refer to it all the time,” tackle Kris Farris recalls as the rivalry prepares to move back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since. “The off-season after that, we all had meetings with Coach Toledo, and I said, ‘I think that was the major turning point of this program.’ The new era. Just to realize that no matter what happens . . . I mean, we were down by 17 with six minutes left and people were leaving and people were trashing us, and we kept fighting, kept fighting, kept fighting, and we got the win.
“It was the crossroads. It put us in the right direction. It gave us something to look at and say, ‘That’s how we should be playing.’ That team was not as talented as this team is, and yet we won that game.”
Said safety Larry Atkins: “It changed the whole attitude of everything, of how we take games and the position that you’re in during the game. No matter how far you’re down, you can’t throw it out.”
They were down, 38-21, after Matt Koffler--USC’s backup quarterback was playing because starter Brad Otton had been knocked out of the game by Weldon Forde’s shot to the ribs--hooked up with R. Jay Soward on a 78-yard scoring pass with 11:06 remaining.
That was still the score midway the fourth quarter. Another minute passed. UCLA got a 47-yard field goal from Bjorn Merten with 6:12 left cutting the deficit to 38-24. Little did anyone know.
The possibility, however remote, emerged when USC punted from deep in its own territory on the ensuing possession. Nine plays and 41 yards later, Keith Brown went in from the one with 2:49 left. The score was 38-31.
The Bruins went for the on-side kick but kicked it out of bounds and the Trojans had the ball on their own 46, not merely in position to run out the clock, but to restore the cushion.
Two plays later, they had first and 10 on UCLA’s 41 and running back LaVale Woods poised to break through the pack for a big gain. Then linebacker Danjuan Magee, who had played sparingly after having his knee drained before the game, reached in and poked the ball free.
Cornerback Kusanti Abdul-Salaam picked it up and returned it to the Bruin 44. The clock showed 1:27. The Bruins had one timeout left and 56 yards to go.
Cade McNown began the drive by connecting with Jim McElroy for 17 yards. Three plays later, he lofted a 23-yard pass to Rodney Lee, who made a diving catch at the USC 11. Skip Hicks burst up the middle for the touchdown, leaving Merten to kick the extra point for the 38-38 tie with 39 seconds remaining.
The Bruins still had to survive a 40-yard field-goal attempt by Adam Abrams on the final play of regulation, but the defensive line made a huge surge and Travis Kirschke got the block.
Overtime, the first in the 66-year series.
Abrams kicked a 25-yard field goal, giving the lead back to USC. Then Merten kicked a clutch 40-yarder for another tie.
The Bruins started this time at the USC 25. It was 4:23 p.m. when Hicks, on a day in which he gained 116 yards in 20 carries, took a handoff from McNown, started left, cut back and scored, leaving defenders in his wake.
Merten’s extra point made the score 48-41.
USC got its chance to respond, but on fourth down, Koffler looked to the end zone in hopes of forcing a third overtime. Anthony Cobbs was there for the interception.
“What happened to us?” USC Coach John Robinson wondered.
Mistakes happened. McNown happened, completing 29 of 47 passes for 356 yards. Hicks, Kirschke, Cobbs, the emotions. They all happened.
“You look at it, we dominate the game all day long, and then look at the scoreboard,” Trojan defensive tackle Darrell Russell said in the aftermath. “I can’t understand it. I can’t explain it. It doesn’t make any sense.”
In time, it did--though maybe not to USC. Though UCLA lost to Washington State and Tennessee to open the next season, the games included monster comebacks--from 30-14 down at halftime at Washington State before losing by three and 24-3 at the same stage against Tennessee before falling by six.
Without the branch of the USC game to cling to, some Bruins say they could have become a 7-4 team after the 0-2 start. Instead, they won the final nine games of the regular season, went to the Cotton Bowl, trailed Texas A&M; in the second quarter, 16-0, then came back to win, 29-23. Which is why that game now has been spliced into the same highlight film that Toledo shows to start camp.
The streak that has lived on includes squeakers this season against Oregon, California, Stanford and Oregon State. Some of those involved comebacks, most had their treacherous moments, all were victories.
“That’s the thing that got it going,” Toledo said. “I preach it, and then it happens. It’s like the Cotton Bowl. We’re down, 16-0, just before half. There’s a lot of people in the stands saying, ‘Oooooh.’ But the players on the field didn’t do that.
“I’ll tell you what it did. It gave credibility to what I was saying, to what I was trying to tell the players, that ‘You’ve got to play for 60 minutes. You’ve got to play four quarters. You can never give up, you can never quit. You do that and don’t worry about the scoreboard, don’t worry about the time clock, just play each and every play.’ Now they believe that. There’s no panic on the sideline when we get behind. There’s no panic when bad plays take place.”
Because of part of a fourth quarter and the overtimes of a game that allowed UCLA to finish 5-6.
“If we didn’t have it in us before the game, we wouldn’t have done it in that game,” McNown said. “But it kind of brought tangible, living proof that we could do it, and a lot of people can kind of think back to that game and get inspiration.”
A lot of people do.