Terry Donahue was squinting, somewhere up there.
He would smile later, probably over a dish of ambrosia, but he always held onto his game face while the game was going on. Besides, he wouldn’t have wanted to miss a second.
On Saturday night UCLA honored its all-time winner, who left us on July 4. It played a Donahue brand of football. It called out a national powerhouse. It proved itself physically tougher, just as quick, deeper, more in command. It seemed to remember it once was the school that won eight consecutive bowl games.
It beat LSU, of the lordly Southeastern Conference, by a score of 38-27. Nothing is guaranteed, in a fluid Pac-12, but the days of owning your private row, on lazy UCLA days at the Rose Bowl, might be over.
“It’s kind of emotional,” said linebacker Bo Calvert, his throat catching a bit. “There’s been tough times. We’ve just pushed through it. Games in the Rose Bowl are meant to be played in front of crowds like that (68,213).”
Mostly, UCLA’s victory showed what can happen when old age and treachery are matched against youth and skill, particularly when the treacherous old guys are skillful, too. Only eight players on UCLA’s top 44 have been in the program fewer than three years, and absolutely nobody has a quarterback with four years of scar tissue who has survived it as well as Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who averaged 28.3 yards per completion on Saturday.
“Our maturity shows in a lot of ways,” coach Chip Kelly said. “When we have meetings, everybody’s in his seat eight minutes early. They love football, they like getting better, they embrace it. We don’t have a game this week but it’s an improvement week. It’s not like we’re going down to Cabo. And it’s the type of thing that excites our guys.
“I guess there were some people who were surprised by this. I don’t think any of our guys were.”
This is an impressive attempt to show that the way for the Pac-12 to bridge the football gap is to welcome non Pac-12 transfers. One of those is Zach Charbonnet of Oaks Christian, late of Michigan. He ran through four Tiger tackling attempts on a 17-yard run, and he threw in a 44-yarder in the second half, one of five UCLA plays that surpassed 30 yards.
Charbonnet and Brittain Brown, a Duke transfer, stomped through the Tigers for 213 yards on 28 tries. Overall the Bruins outrushed LSU 215-48 and romped to 7.4 yards per play.
Their offensive line gave Dorian Thompson-Robinson the time to hit Chad Cota on a crossing-pattern touchdown, and to find tight end Greg Dulcich similarly to set up another score. Their defensive line totally squelched LSU’s rushing game and severely belabored quarterback Max Johnson.
“Our guys are really smart,” Kelly said. “The stuff we do on defense might seem complicated to the other team, but it’s pretty simple for us.”
And when LSU broke free to get the first score of the game, Thompson found roommate Dulcich, taking advantage of over-reacting LSU linebackers and standing as open as a 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end ever will be. It became a 75-yard touchdown.
“Coach Sage (Derek Sage, the tight end coach) always says that when you catch the ball it’s a first down or a touchdown,” Dulcich said. “I try to think of it as a touchdown first, then a first down. All of us, bouncing off tackles…can’t tackle Zach, can’t tackle Brittain, can’t tackle Kyle (Phillips, who got the final score). It’s tough to stop that.”
Such developments blow up several decades of coastal stereotypes.
The added purpose of this game was to elevate the Rose Bowl itself through the eyes of others. To us, it’s become a consolation prize for teams that don’t play for championships; you lose your way into the bowl game, as twisted as that sounds. But LSU, a full-blooded member of college football royalty that played its first game in 1893, had never played in Pasadena before. It meant something.
Remember when Vince Young and Texas derailed the best team in human history in the 2005 Rose Bowl? That was a title game in the old Bowl Championship Series, but the Longhorns were also there the year before, when they outlasted Michigan, 38-37, in one of the best Jan. 1 games ever. They went home pledging to return. You’ve heard the same sense of wonder from TCU, Oklahoma, Miami and other interlopers who finally got a chance to play in a place they used to watch from their fireplaces.
LSU fans who made tangible plans also had to deal with Hurricane Ida, and they have to deal with it for weeks and maybe months on end. The purple people found themselves driving desperately to Jackson, Miss. and Mobile, Ala., because the New Orleans airport was powerless. Some made it, some didn’t. The storm hit Larose, La., Orgeron’s hometown, and his mother was forced to find shelter in Beaumont, Tex.
To say that a football team can uplift a community from disaster is a dubious premise, because the game ends long before the damage disappears. But LSU is the unifying force of a state which lies at the mercy of its climate, especially when hurricane and football season intersect. So this trip and this game were uniquely therapeutic.
Then the game started, and we learned the Rose Bowl just might have a team to match its mountains.