Let us be honest and face facts: The first decade of the 21st century was a mediocre one for the UCLA Bruins football program.
Being a loyal alumnus and a dedicated member of Bruin Nation, that was a difficult thing to say. But it’s also the truth.
This program has had three coaches over these past ten years, including the current one, Rick Neuheisel. UCLA’s previous two head honchos, Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell, were fired after failing to live up to expectations and falling behind crosstown enemy USC in the areas of execution and success.
Let’s take stock in the just completed decade:
An overall record of 67 wins and 57 losses, with a sub-par 41-43 record in the Pacific 10 Conference.
No BCS bowl appearances and a 3-5 record in the bowls they did appear in; two Sun Bowls were as good as it got for the Bruins.
A failure to reach the top ten in the polls, UCLA’s highest ranking being at No.11 during the 2005 season.
And worst of all, the Bruins beat the Trojans only once in ten tries, losing seven in a row in one stretch.
A performance like this wouldn’t be so bad at some schools, but compared to earlier decades in which UCLA enjoyed Pac-10 glory, Rose Bowl berths, and top ten rankings, this was an unacceptable period.
However, despite all of this there were bright spots as the Bruins did achieve some big wins over significant opponents, wins that made for some good memories in Westwood.
I thought I would list the six victories that were the best in my view, in descending order, starting with…
6. UCLA 20, Alabama 17 – 2001
This was by far the biggest road triumph during the decade, as the Bruins overcame a 10-0 Crimson Tide lead in front of a typically large and hostile SEC crowd in Tuscaloosa.
The defense came alive in sacking the Tide’s quarterback three times. DeShaun Foster ran for 110 yards, Cory Paus threw a 53 yard touchdown pass to Tab Perry to silence the ‘Bama faithful, and most significantly UCLA had no penalties or turnovers, the first and perhaps the only time that has ever happened.
5. UCLA 35, Alabama 24 – 2000
After a disappointing 1999, the Bruins began the new millenium against a team that was ranked third in the country, coming off an SEC championship and a win in the Orange Bowl.
Led by DeShaun Foster’s 187 yards and three rushing touchdowns along with Freddie Mitchell’s 46 yard TD catch and a touchdown throw off an option play, Bob Toledo’s squad overcame a 71 yard punt return and a 91 yard interception return, both going for scores, to get the victory as the defense forced three key turnovers.
It was a pretty decent way to begin a new century.
4. UCLA 23, Michigan 20 – 2000
The biggest thing I remember about this contest at the Rose Bowl was that it was excruciatingly hot, 103 degrees in Pasadena; 15 people had to go to the hospital for heat exhaustion that day.
It turned out to be worth it as UCLA came back from a 20-10 deficit in the fourth quarter behind Ryan McCann’s 236 yards passing and two touchdowns. Freddie Mitchell stepped up huge in catching ten passes for 137 yards, and Jason Stephens clinched the win with a last minute pick.
For the second time in three weeks, a number three ranked team fell to the Bruins.
3. UCLA 41, Oklahoma 24 – 2005
This was a statement game in Westwood, as the Sooners from Norman were coming off a BCS national championship appearance and had one of the game’s top running backs in Adrian Peterson.
Peterson was held to 58 yards on the ground as UCLA came back from an early Sooner lead to overtake OU. Drew Olson threw for 314 yards with three touchdowns as the Bruins scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, and the defense forced three Oklahoma fumbles which they turned into 17 points.
2. UCLA 47, California 40 – 2005
This battle at the Rose Bowl between the University of California’s two flagship campuses was epic, the best one in the longtime series.
It marked the first time that the Bruins and Berkeley’s Golden Bears met while ranked in the top 20, Cal at No.10 and UCLA at No. 18. Since both teams had high scoring offenses that year, it promised to be an exciting contest.
The crowd of 84,811 was not disappointed, as the game went back and forth with the Bruins overcoming a nine point Bear advantage and hundred yard rushing games by Cal running backs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett in the final quarter. Maurice Jones-Drew helped to knock out the Bears with 299 yards of total offense and five touchdowns, which included an 81 yard punt return for a score that excited his UCLA teammates and Bruin fans.
The fact that the Bruins ended the game with a last minute interception and a final score by Drew only served to put an exclamation point on the whole thing.
UCLA showed much heart and guts in the victory, which should have gotten a prominent spot on ESPN Classic.
Now you know I could not make a list of great Bruin wins without including at least one triumph over the Trojan enemies.
Choosing this game as the most significant victory of the decade was admittedly predictable, but as a fervent member of Bruin Nation, it’s my duty and obligation…
1. UCLA 13, USC 9 – 2006
A game that will live forever in UCLA lore and, to the delight of Bruins everywhere, in Trojan infamy.
This was unquestionably the biggest upset in the history of the crosstown rivalry, and perhaps the biggest upset not only in UCLA football history, but in the entire history of Bruin athletics.
With ‘SC as a powerhouse and a defending national champion, complete with a 10-1 record, a No.2 ranking and playing for a spot in the BCS title game, how could it not have been an upset for the ages? Especially with UCLA being only 6-5 that afternoon of December 2nd.
Led by Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, the Bruin defense absolutely shined in stuffing the vaunted Trojan offensive attack time after time, particularly on 4th down conversions.
Before 90,266 rabid fans, Eric McNeal’s tipped interception to stop a potentially game winning USC drive and Aaron Perez’s 63 yard punt sealed the deal on a victory that broke a streak of 63 games in which the Trojans scored at least 20 points, and most importantly denied the Men of Troy a shot at the national championship.
It was the highest ranked team that UCLA had ever beaten, as well as coach Karl Dorrell’s signature win.
And I had the privilege, pleasure, and honor of being at the Rose Bowl to witness it.
I hope these recollections of this past decade’s bright spots provided happy memories for Bruin fans and alumni, in light of the overall disappointment that these past ten years have brought to Westwood.
Perhaps the next decade that’s upon us will bring better results for Bruin football, and I’ll be able to make a list in 2020 of at least ten great wins rather than a mere six.