It became apparent quickly in Saturday’s game involving UCLA and Washington State that it was going to be a long afternoon for the Bruin defense -- the same defense that a week earlier had managed a rare shutout against Stanford.
It took 18 seconds, to be precise. That’s when the Cougars, after recovering a Tab Perry fumble at the Bruin 25 during the opening kickoff return, gave the ball to Jerome Harrison.
Harrison charged through a hole in the line and sprinted into the end zone, resulting in a 7-0 Cougar lead.
And from that point on, it became increasingly clear that the junior tailback, recruited by the Cougars out of Pasadena City College, was going to enjoy one of those performances he can savor for years.
“You could have almost run through those holes blindfolded,” he said after the Cougars had ended a four-game losing streak with a 31-29 victory over a Bruin team that seemed to have taken its opponent too lightly. “I don’t think I really did that much, but just run.”
Washington State improved to 4-5 overall, 2-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference. UCLA dropped to 5-4 and 3-3.
Harrison, who also scored from 45 yards out, ran a school-record 42 times for 247 yards and two touchdowns in front of a Rose Bowl crowd of 62,251. His yardage total was third highest for a Cougar, behind Bernard Jackson (261 yards in 1971) and Reuben Mayes (357 in 1984).
Both touchdowns were scored in the first half, helping Washington State open a 21-10 lead that was not in serious jeopardy until the final minute, when the Bruins scored on a pass from Drew Olson to Manuel White but failed on a two-point conversion that could have sent the game into overtime.
For Harrison, the preservation of victory was particularly sweet, considering the many turns his life has taken, this week delivering him back to “my home away from home.”
Lacking the academic requirements needed to make it into a top college, the star from Central High in Kalamazoo, Mich. -- where as a senior he logged 2,338 yards and 31 touchdowns -- ended up at Eastern Michigan.
Unhappy there, he looked into the junior college programs in California and ended up in Pasadena, where he was befriended by a family that took him in.
As a freshman, he rushed for 790 yards and nine touchdowns in only seven games. As a sophomore, he gained 1,059 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Though a top junior college prospect, he wasn’t heavily recruited by USC or UCLA.
The Cougars, who had also plucked Jonathan Smith from PCC, saw similarities in Harrison’s style and build. Smith rushed for a team-high 1,023 yards as a senior last season.
That helped convince Harrison that perhaps Pullman was a place he could make a name for himself. Though he had started only twice before Saturday, he had been steadily getting more playing time and recently beat out senior Chris Bruhn for the starting slot.
He knew he would get lots of carries against the Bruins, who had been extremely generous to opposing running backs, except for in the Stanford game. It took only one carry to know there would be many more.
Said Cougar quarterback Alex Brink: “That first play set the tone and we just kept giving it to him. Having him run so well makes my job 10 times easier. I threw 27 times instead of 41. It also takes the pressure off my receivers.”
And it places heaps of it back where it had been for most of the UCLA season -- on the shoulders of a young and still-inexperienced defensive line.