EL PASO — From any angle, the photo looks the same. USC's Reggie Bush is leaping into the corner of the end zone over a diving UCLA defender. It was the exclamation point play in a lopsided defeat for the Bruins.
Senior cornerback Marcus Cassel is the player in the picture, and he has accepted that he became part of history once Bush won the Heisman Trophy.
"It doesn't bother me, none at all," Cassel said. "For one, I know that he's a talented athlete. And two, when I went to go tackle him, I didn't try to tackle his ankles. I went for his [middle]. He just made a good play."
It's deceiving that Cassel will be remembered for that play because as UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said, "He played his best game of the year and probably of his career against USC."
With Bush and Co. running through gaping holes and often into the secondary untouched, Cassel finished with a personal-best 16 tackles, including 14 solos. It was the highest total for a Bruin since Spencer Havner made 17 against Illinois early last season.
"He was all over the field, making tackles and breaking up passes," Dorrell said. "It's fun to see that type of development happen for a senior that has paid the price to be a starter."
For Cassel, tied for the team lead in pass breakups and forced fumbles and fourth in tackles, it has been a price worth paying as No. 17 UCLA prepares to play Northwestern in the Sun Bowl here Friday.
"It's starting to hit me that this is my last [UCLA] game and could be my last game that I ever play," Cassel said. "It gets pretty emotional when I think about all of the hard work that I've put in and all of the struggles that I have gone through.
"I try not to think about too much because I don't want to get overwhelmed."
Recruited out of Bellflower St. John Bosco High by then-Bruin coach Bob Toledo, Cassel was a member of a 2001 class expected to lead UCLA back to the top of the Pacific 10 Conference. Things didn't work out that way.
Cassel and many of his classmates did not play as freshmen, and once they did, UCLA's program was struggling on and off the field. By the time Toledo was replaced by Dorrell after the 2002 season, Cassel was already buried in the Bruins' depth chart.
Then he took a step back. Before the start of his sophomore season, Cassel was charged with driving under the influence and was suspended for a game.
"I definitely learned from that experience, and I'm happy to share with people so they don't make the same mistakes that I made," Cassel said. "It happened when I was young and I wasn't thinking about the consequences. I was just wanting to have fun and wasn't worried about getting hurt or who else I could hurt."
Cassel played mainly on special teams the rest of the 2003 season and his stock was not high. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, Cassel simply worked harder.
"That's what you would expect from Marcus because he's always been a leader," said Cassel's childhood friend Charles Dorsey. "He's the type of person who is going to do what he has to do in order to get the job done."
By making sure that he was always one of the first to arrive and the last to leave practice, Cassel slowly worked his way up the depth chart. By the start of his junior season, he had earned a starting cornerback position opposite his former roommate Matt Clark.
Unfortunately for Cassel, he didn't hold on to the position.
He played well at times, but mistakes cost him, and Trey Brown replaced him late in the season. Cassel finished the year as a backup
"He kept a lot of things to himself," said his mother, Joletta Cassel, of Carson.
"But he's always been a very quiet person and always serious-minded about football.
"He's matured quite a bit and has had to deal with a lot of adversity. He's turned to be the person true to his heart."
After starting fall camp listed as one of four players competing for the right cornerback job, Cassel emerged as a confident starter and has held the spot ever since.
He had eight solo tackles in a win over Washington and forced two fumbles that led to UCLA touchdowns against Arizona State.
"He was a part-time starter last year and ended up being a full-time starter this year," Dorrell said. "He has really grown in a number of ways.... He's been very positive for our younger players."
Cassel said he was proud of UCLA's accomplishments this season.
After being picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Pacific 10, the Bruins (9-2) challenged for the league championship and have a chance to become the seventh team in school history to win 10 games in a season.
"I've experienced some of the good, and I've experienced some of the bad," said Cassel, who graduated with a psychology degree this month.
"The thing that I like the most is that I'm leaving here on a good note.
"I got a chance to compete and do my thing."
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
Friday's Sun Bowl will feature two top teams on offense. A look at where UCLA and Northwestern rank in the nation on offense in rushing, passing and scoring (Division I-A rank in parentheses):
*--* UCLA NORTHWESTERN 9-2 RECORD 7-4 38.1 (7) POINTS 31.8 (32) 147.1 (54) YARDS RUSHING 195.9 (27) 281.9 (19) YARDS PASSING 296.8 (10) 429.0 (24) TOTAL OFFENSE 492.7 (8)