Best Season Ever: UCLA Wins One For Toledo
Note: This post is part of a series dedicated to each PAC-12 team’s best season since 1980. Check out Jacy’s posts for Cal, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Washington State, Utah and Oregon State.
Last night, UCLA got off to a great start in its 2012 season, pulling away from Rice in the second half for a 49-24 victory. But will the Bruins fair better this season than last year’s 6-8 campaign? Reflecting on their best season in 1997 could provide some incentive to climb up the rankings in 2012.
Behind an aggressive offense, the 1997 Bruins were UCLA’s highest ranked squad since 1955. In their second season under head coach Bob Toledo, the Bruins started poorly, losing their first two games of the season. However, things quickly turned around when UCLA smashed the Texas Longhorns 66-3, initiating a Bruins’ 20 game win streak. From there, UCLA defeated Houston, Arizona, and Oregon. The Bruins conquered their rivals at USC and Cal, and were invited to the 62nd Cotton Bowl Classic.
UCLA was set to play against Texas A&M, coached by R.C. Slocum. In 1993, Toledo was fired as the assistant offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Texas A&M by Slocum. He then joined the UCLA coaching staff the next year and became head coach of the Bruins in 1996. Now the coaches that once walked the same sideline found themselves on opposite sides of the field.
Toledo’s strategy was to establish a physical offense, led by quarterback Cade McNown. However, on UCLA’s second possession, A&M’s Dat Nguyen intercepted McNown’s pass, ran it back 19 yards and then lateraled the ball to Brandon Jennings, who flew down the sideline for a Texas A&M touchdown. The play electrified the 60,000 fans and gave A&M an early lead. Though down 16-7 at halftime, the Bruins’ luck would soon change. McNown threw a 41-yard scoring pass to Skip Hicks in the third quarter, and when the Aggies answered with a touchdown of their own, McNown responded with a 20 yard touchdown run less than six minutes later.
Down two points, with less than seven minutes to play, back-up tight end Ryan Neufeld scored on a five-yard reverse and gave the Bruins the victory. According to Sports Illustrated, UCLA completed the second-highest scoring comeback in Cotton Bowl history, just below Notre Dame’s 22 point climb to beat Houston 35-34 in 1979. Cade McNown, who broke the school’s single season passing record, was named the Offensive MVP of game. The win over the man who fired him was all too sweet for Toledo, who led the Bruins to an overall record of 10-2 and a No. 5 ranking in both the Coaches and AP polls. The Bruins shared the PAC-10 Championship with Washington State, one of the two teams that defeated them in the season.
With the skills of Cade McNown and the offensive mindset of Toledo, the 1997 Bruins were undoubtedly UCLA’s best team since 1980. Lately though, the Bruins haven’t had much success. Due to injury and inconsistency in recent seasons, UCLA has struggled to find a steady quarterback. It will Kevin Prince’s last season as quarterback for the Bruins, but his limited effectiveness has hampered the Bruins immensely. After a lack-luster 21-28 record as head coach, Rick Neuheisel was fired in 2012, allowing the 2012 debut of UCLA’s new head coach, Jim Mora. While Mora’s Bruins got off to a great start last night, it’ll take upsets over PAC-12 powerhouses USC and Oregon to return to the glory days of 15 years ago.