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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / 1996

In Sore Need of a Lift, Bruins Get One

UCLA: Hicks and McNown bring a victory that sends spirits soaring in troubled athletic department.

November 24, 1996|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UCLA Chancellor Charles Young had the game ball in his hands.

Athletic Director Peter Dalis had tears in his eyes.

First-year Coach Bob Toledo had his own "W" in The Streak.

And quarterback Cade McNown, tailback Skip Hicks and their teammates had the memory of a lifetime.

That sound emanating from the Rose Bowl as the sun set over the rim late Saturday afternoon was a much-needed scream of joy for an athletic program that has endured one of the most difficult periods in its history.

Football is not basketball. And wins on the field don't equate with losses on the staff.

But Saturday's 48-41 overtime victory over USC provided a morale booster for a university under attack since the firing of basketball Coach Jim Harrick earlier this month.

"It's certainly good for my morale," an obviously emotional Dalis said. "And it's good for the people in the athletic department."

Those close to him couldn't remember the athletic director being so emotional.

Young, who is retiring after 29 years as chancellor, clutched the game ball presented to him by Toledo as though Young himself were about to carry it into the end zone.

The only UCLA-USC game Young thought could compare with this one was the 1965 game in which Bruin quarterback Gary Beban threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final four minutes to rally UCLA to a 20-16 victory over the Trojans.

"The emotions around here are as high as I can remember," Young said. "Everybody will be able to hold onto this for a long time."

None more so than Hicks.

He was hurting before he even arrived at the Rose Bowl because of a bout with flu that had forced him to miss all but one practice last week and left him feeling as if he already had collided with a couple of 260-pounders before he even suited up.

It got worse before it got better.

Toledo loves his trick plays. And he came up with a beauty in the second quarter. McNown handed off to Hicks, who gave the ball to receiver Jim McElroy on a double reverse. McElroy then turned and lofted a pass to an open Hicks. Perfect execution.

Except that Hicks dropped the ball.

At that point, with Hicks suffering from a bruised shoulder as well as flu, Toledo temporarily took his tailback out of the game.

"I was feeling weak," Hicks later admitted. "I had a headache and my body ached all over."

But at halftime, Hicks found a cure for what ailed him--adrenaline.

"I knew it was going to hurt when I played," he said. "But I would rather it hurt now than to have it hurt for the next year because we lost the game."

By the game's end, Hicks, who rushed for a game-high 116 yards and scored two touchdowns, was feeling no pain after tying the game with 39 seconds to play with an 11-yard run and then winning it in the second overtime with a 25-yard run.

Hicks said McNown had prepared him for the 11-yard touchdown run as they drove down the field in the closing seconds of regulation, trailing, 38-31.

"He told us, 'We are going to score. Get your mind ready,' " Hicks said.

McNown displays poise and confidence far beyond what might be expected of a 19-year-old sophomore. And he certainly displayed those qualities in keeping his offense focused in a game in which the Bruins trailed by 17 in the fourth quarter.

"If you believe, there's still hope," McNown said.

In the stands, McNown's mother, Vicki, never stopped believing. She has been in awe of her son since he used to go out as an 8-year-old and compete in football games on the hard asphalt street against his brother, Jeff, then 12, and some of Jeff's 16-year-old friends, flashing that same kind of confidence.

"He's always been kind of wise beyond his years," she said. "I'm kind in awe of him too."

The thing that will leave the graduating seniors in awe long after their diplomas have aged and yellowed is the fact that they never lost to the Trojans in a streak that has reached an unprecedented six games.

"If you had told me when I came here that I would never lose to USC and I would be the second straight UCLA graduating class to say that, I would have never believed it," said senior defensive back Abdul McCullough. "This is the last game of my college career and this is the way to do it. It couldn't have been written any better by a screen writer."

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