EL PASO — Throughout the season, No. 17 UCLA made a living with come-from-behind victories and the Bruins saved their all-time best for Friday's Sun Bowl.
After spotting Northwestern 22 first-quarter points, the Bruins scored 36 in succession en route to a 50-38 victory, their first bowl win in three seasons under Coach Karl Dorrell.
In finishing with 10 wins in a season for the seventh time ever, the Bruins (10-2) had to complete the largest comeback in school history, breaking the previous mark of 21 points, which was accomplished three times, including twice this year.
"We've responded well all season and this one was special because we played a great offensive football team," UCLA senior linebacker Justin London said about the Wildcats (7-5), who entered eighth in the nation in total offense. "After we got down, we knew that we had to contain their weapons and once we did, we were able to get our own offense back into the game and build some emotion."
Unlike their previous four comebacks from double-digit deficits this season, the Bruins found themselves in a hole because of mistakes made by their offense.
Senior quarterback Drew Olson, who threw only three interceptions during the regular season, got off to a horrible start Friday. He completed only two of 10 passes in the first quarter and two of his three interceptions were returned for touchdowns.
"I was shocked," Olson said about his first-quarter problems. "I just told myself that this can't be for real. But like I've done my whole career, I battled back."
Olson did just that with three touchdown passes, but he also had plenty of help, starting with backup running backs Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell, co-most valuable players of the game.
With starter Maurice Drew limited most of the afternoon because of a shoulder injury he suffered returning a first-quarter kickoff, Markey and Bell combined for 286 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
"When somebody goes down, the next man has to be ready to take over and do the job," said Markey, who finished with a game-high 161 yards in 24 carries. "The run game was our plan coming in and the O-line and [fullback] did a great job blocking for us."
The Wildcats, who have not won a bowl game since 1949, jumped ahead early with a field goal and a great effort by defensive lineman Kevin Mims. On the play, Mims avoided a cut block by UCLA tackle Noah Sutherland and then intercepted and returned Olson's screen pass 30 yards for a touchdown to give Northwestern a 9-0 lead.
UCLA's next possession also ended with a turnover when Olson threw a high pass that bounced off the hands of 6-foot-6 tight end Marcedes Lewis to safety Bryan Heinz. Four plays later, Northwestern led, 15-0, when wide receiver Mark Philmore took a reverse 19 yards for a touchdown.
The Wildcats' final score of the first half came when Olson threw his third interception of the quarter. On the play, Olson was hit by lineman Barry Colfield and linebacker Nick Roach grabbed the deflected pass and scored from 35 yards to give Northwestern a 22-0 lead less than 11 minutes into the game.
But the Wildcats, who would have had a larger lead except for two missed extra-point attempts by Joel Howells, could not hold on to their advantage.
The Bruins finally got their offense going when they kept the ball on the ground and drove 80 yards in 11 plays, capped off when Bell ran five yards for a touchdown.
After Northwestern's first punt, UCLA needed only one play to score again when Olson completed a 58-yard touchdown pass to freshman tight end Ryan Moya early in the second quarter.
That set the stage for senior linebacker Spencer Havner, who ended a good-looking Northwestern drive when he intercepted a pass by quarterback Brett Basanez at the UCLA 10-yard line.
"That was a big play because they were moving the ball on us," said Havner, who finished his career with 11 interceptions.
The Bruins didn't need long to reach the end zone after Havner's play as they drove 90 yards in five plays. Markey and Bell did most of the work with Bell capping the possession with a five-yard power touchdown run. After Olson completed a two-point conversion pass to Lewis, the score was tied, 22-22, midway into the second quarter.
After Northwestern, which had problems with its kicking game all day, had a field-goal attempt blocked, UCLA took the lead for good 29 seconds before halftime when Olson completed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Everett to make it 29-22.
In the third quarter, UCLA continued to dominate when safety Jarrad Page forced Northwestern freshman Tyrell Sutton to fumble and recovered it deep in Wildcat territory. Five plays later, the Bruins led, 36-25, when Olson completed a five-yard pass to fullback Michael Pitre for his third touchdown pass.