UCLA's 'walk-ons' ran quite a show in Rose Bowl
Pasadena, Calif. — The 1984 Rose Bowl Game was different - and not simply because underdog UCLA routed fifth-ranked Illinois 45-9. It was different because two of the game's principal characters were walk-ons , which means they arrived at practice unannounced, unrecruited, and uninvited. In one instance, however, you'll have to turn back the calendar a few years.
Back in 1964, current UCLA head coach Terry Donahue made the Bruins' varsity as a nonscholarship player. He eventually became a starter at defensive tackle, climaxing his junior year by playing in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State. Later, Terry would serve five years as an assistant coach with the Bruins before becoming head man himself in 1976.
Now the Cinderella story is that of senior quarterback Rick Neuheisel, who also started out as a walk-on, and who climaxed his career by tossing a record-tying four touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl. Neuheisel played a backup role until finally becoming a starter this season, then was benched after the Bruins started off with three losses and a tie. In fact, he only got his job back when the player who replaced him, Steve Bono, was injured.
From that point, the Bruins won six of seven games to qualify for the Rose Bowl. And the main reason was Neuheisel, whose .691 pass completion percentage shattered Tom Ramsey's school record of .622, and whose 163 completions were the third highest in UCLA history.
All this from a kid who stirred a minimum of interest from a couple of Ivy League schools and who was always hearing that he was either too short or too slow. Even Arizona State, located not too far from where Rick played his high school football, turned him down, presumably on the misinformation that he didn't throw well under pressure.
''After the way Neuheisel played against us, I'd have to say he's one of the most poised quarterbacks we saw all year,'' said Illinois coach Mike White. ''He handled himself well. He handled the pressure of our defense well. He also took advantage of some of our personnel in ways that hadn't been done all year.''
Strategy-wise, this game was unusual in the way Donahue and his staff ignored the theory that a team in post-season play has to stay with the things that got it there. Instead Terry changed his offense, disguised his defense, and even moved players to different positions.
''After looking at game films, we knew right away that we had to do something extra to contain their defensive tackles (Don Thorp and Mark Butkus), who were certainly going to try to pressure our quarterback,'' Donahue explained. ''So part of the time we had our center playing guard, and we also did some other things we hoped would wear them out.
''Defensively we changed the look of our coverages on almost every play. We also told our kids to be more aggressive than they had been in previous games and I think this is what got us so many sacks and interceptions.''
Asked if UCLA had benefited from both L.A. and out-of-town papers writing that the Bruins didn't belong in the Rose Bowl because of their 6-4-1 record and lack of national ranking, Donahue replied:
''Sure that helped us. Kids read things like that and they react. I think we probably had a tremendous psychological advantage.''