1982 UCLA football came into the season hungry for a Rose Bowl. The program’s last Rose Bowl appearance had come following the 1975 season with Dick Vermeil as head coach. Vermeil then left to coach the Philadelphia Eagles and was succeeded by Terry Donahue. The winning continued—a 44-21-3 record between 1976-81—but the Pac-10’s Rose Bowl bid belonged to either hated rival USC or Washington.
The Bruins had a top passing offense in 1982. Quarterback Tom Ramsey threw for nearly 3,000 yards and completed over 62 percent of his passes. Those numbers were second in the Pac-10, trailing only a Stanford man by the name of John Elway. Ramsey’s 8.9 yards-per-attempt and his 151.5 efficiency rating actually exceeded Elway’s. Ramsey’s 21/10 TD-INT ratio was essentially comparable with Elway’s.
Ramsey’s receiving corps was well-balanced with Jojo Townsell, Cormac Carney and Paul Bergmann, each of whom caught between 40-50 passes. Townsell’s 17.5 yards-per-catch were third in the league.
There still wasn’t great talent defensively although the Bruins had a future NFL safety in hard-hitting Don Rogers. Nor was there was a big-time running game, and UCLA opened the season ranked #20.
A tune-up win over Long Beach State was followed by a 51-26 road thrashing of Wisconsin. This was a decent Badger team that made a bowl game, and growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, I attended this game and still recall watching Ramsey carve up the Badgers.
A road trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan came next for UCLA and the game was dynamite. The Bruins rallied to take a late 31-27 lead and then held off last-gasp Wolverine drive that reached the eight-yard line. The victory moved UCLA to #9 in the polls.
After a blowout win over lowly Colorado, the Bruins stumbled for the first time when they tied a decent Arizona team 24-24 at home. Before the year was over, the Wildcats would find a way to make it up to the Bruins.
The next three games came with two bad opponents, Washington State and Oregon, sandwiched around a seven-win Cal squad. Ramsey’s offense dropped 40-plus all three times and UCLA won those games by a combined 129-42. They were back into the Top 10 as the calendar flipped to November and a red-hot four-team Pac-10 race was on.
A tough 10-7 loss at Washington seemed to spell the end of UCLA’s Rose Bowl hopes. They were 3-1-1 in league play, with Arizona State at 5-0 and Washington at 5-1. USC was also in the race at 4-1, although probation would render the Trojans ineligible for the Rose Bowl.
Ramsey won a duel with Elway the following week as the Bruins edged the Cardinal 38-35. The conference race stayed open when Washington beat Arizona State. UCLA was within a half-game of the lead.
There was still the traditional season finale with USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which UCLA shared with their rival as a home field at this time. A year earlier, a blocked field goal cost the Bruins a Rose Bowl trip. It looked like similar heartbreak might come this year. Leading 20-13, UCLA allowed a last-play touchdown pass.
If USC just kicked the extra point they could finish UCLA’s Rose Bowl hopes, but Trojan head coach John Robinson decided to play for the win in his team’s last game of the season. Robinson dialed up a pass play. Bruin nose tackle Karl Morgan pressured from the inside. Outside linebacker Eugene Leoni came from the perimeter. They met at the quarterback and the sack preserved the 20-19 win.
UCLA got their first break when Washington State stunned Washington. Now it was time to wait a week for the Arizona-Arizona State game. If the Sun Devils lost, the Bruins were Rose Bowl-bound. And sure enough, thanks to two long touchdown passes Arizona won 28-18.
The Wildcats were coached by future USC boss Larry Smith. Ironically, UCLA’s Rose Bowl trip had come thanks to the leadership of a future Trojan coach and the competitive class of the current one, as Robinson placed going for the win ahead of simply breaking the heart of his rival.
The Rose Bowl was a rematch between UCLA and Michigan, something that was a rarity in college football before the age of longer schedules and conference championship games. It was also two teams with different recent histories. Since the Bruins’ last visit to this stage, Michigan had made four trips.
For the first half, the Rose Bowl seemed to promise the same excitement that the September game in Ann Arbor provided. UCLA led 10-7 at intermission, but the Bruin defense was beginning to assert itself. No one did more than Rogers, who made 11 tackles, including a vicious (but clean) hit on Michigan quarterback Steve Smith that separated the quarterback’s shoulder.
UCLA was also getting turnovers, four on the day and they took care of the ball themselves. The Bruins won 24-14 in a game that didn’t feel quite that close by the time the second half dominance was over.
This New Year’s Day breakthrough was the start of something special for Donahue. It was the first of four straight major bowl victories, three of which would be in Pasadena and he would develop a reputation for his bowl success. The 1982 season was the start of that run.