Few would have guessed the implications that the 1997 opener between UCLA and Washington State would have.
The contest featured plenty of offense. In the end, however, it was a goal line stand that would ultimately decide the contest as the Cougars prevailed, 37-34.
Setting the Stage
Neither UCLA nor Washington State were ranked as they arrived in Pullman on Aug. 30, 1997. In its second year under Bob Toledo, UCLA was coming off a 5-6 season.
Washington State also finished 5-6 in 1996. Entering their ninth season under Mike Price, the Cougars were looking to bounce back from consecutive losing campaigns.
Washington State’s Defense Comes Up Big
Throughout the afternoon, it was the offenses that dominated. For most of the day, Washington State seemed in control.
The Cougars led 30-14 and 37-21 before UCLA came storming back. A touchdown pass from Cade McNown to Danny Farmer and the fourth touchdown of the day from running back Skip Hicks pulled the Bruins to within three at 37-34.
On the game’s decisive possession, UCLA seemed on the verge of taking the Cougars’ hearts. A drive that began inside the UCLA 10-yard-line and lasted nearly six minutes had reached the goal line. With less than three minutes left and the ball placed inches from the end zone, Toledo elected to keep the UCLA offense on the field for 4th-and-goal.
On a day where he rushed for 190 yards and four scores, Hicks got the call. Hicks made his way toward the middle but ran into a slew of Washington State defenders.
The Cougars made the stop, took over and picked up first downs to run out the clock. Quarterback Ryan Leaf finished with 381 yards passing and three touchdowns in the win.
Los Angeles Times
Video of the finish:
UCLA would lose a tough one the following week to Tennessee, but that would be its final loss. The Bruins closed the year on a 10-game winning streak. After topping Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, UCLA finished No. 5 in the final AP Poll.
Washington State would start 7-0 before falling to Arizona State to open November. That would be the only regular season loss for the Cougars.
They closed the year with a 21-16 Rose Bowl loss to eventual national champion Michigan. The Cougars were No. 9 in the final poll — their highest national ranking ever at the time.
Washington State and UCLA finished tied atop the Pac-10 standings at 7-1 in conference. It was the ultimately the head-to-head victory that sent the Cougars to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1930 season. That victory came thanks to a goal line stop on this day a quarter-century ago.
Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.