Pepper Rodgers was in his third year as the head coach in Westwood. By this point, the football program was clearly working in the shadows of John Wooden’s legendary basketball program, who were merely fresh off their seventh straight NCAA title the previous March. The football Bruins were no slouch, but were after their first Rose Bowl bid since 1965. After a terrible first year for Rodgers in 1971, the program had leapt to eight wins in 1972. The 1973 UCLA football team made a noble run at getting to Pasadena, but in the end, another long shadow—that of their crosstown rival—was too much to overcome.
Rodgers used the wishbone offense and the ‘73 Bruins ran it exceptionally well. Kermit Johnson was the top running back, and he rolled up over 1,110 yards, narrowly edging USC’s great Anthony Davis for the Pac-8 rushing title. What’s more, Johnson averaged a dazzling 7.5 yards per carry.
The wishbone’s complementary runners included James McAlister, who racked up over 700 yards at nearly six a pop. Charles Schuhmann chipped in nearly 500 more, and averaged over five yards per carry.
Sophomore quarterback John Sciarra only thew thirty passes, but he ran the wishbone to the tune of 496 rushing yards and generated nearly seven yards per attempt. With an all-conference guard, Steve Klosterman leading the way up front, this potent running game led the way for the UCLA offense to rank second in the nation for points scored.
The defense had some notable performers, starting with All-American safety Jimmy Allen. All-Pac-8 players included defensive back Jim Bright and linebacker Fulton Kuykendall. But as a unit, the Bruin D didn’t mesh the way the offense did. UCLA ranked 50th nationally for points allowed.
Expectations were reasonably high, and the Bruins came into the season ranked #10. But a season-opening trip to fourth-ranked Nebraska went poorly. While the loss wasn’t unexpected, taking it on the chin in a 40-13 rout was a big setback. Pollsters knocked UCLA down to #18 in the rankings.
A couple of Big Ten teams were up next. The Bruins got healthy by rolling a terrible Iowa team, destined for a winless season, 55-18. That was followed by a 34-21 victory at mediocre Michigan State. UCLA closed out non-conference play on a strong note, hammering a pretty good Utah team 66-16.
The Pac-8 (the league would not become the Pac-10 until Arizona and Arizona State joined in 1978, and it’s only recently that Utah and Colorado joined to complete the current Pac-12) schedule opened up with a tough game at Stanford. The Cardinal had the league’s top passing quarterback in Mike Boryla, and they would be a contender. But the Bruins, in their best performance of the season, delivered a 59-13 beatdown to start what they hoped would be a march to the Rose Bowl.
Washington State was mediocre, but they had a 1,000-yard rusher in Andrew Jones. UCLA went north and chiseled out a 24-13 win. That was followed up by a home date with Cal. The Golden Bears were a subpar team, but had future NFL starters at the skill spots, with Vince Ferragamo at quarterback and Chuck Muncie in the backfield. It didn’t matter. UCLA pounded Cal 61-21. When the next polls came out, the Bruins were back where they started, at #10 in the nation.
The routs continued with a 62-13 demolition of lowly Washington. Oregon was another bad team that had some notable individual talent—Don Reynolds was another 1,000-yard rusher and tight end Russ Francis went on to a good pro career. But the rest of the Ducks didn’t measure up to the Bruins, and UCLA coasted, 27-7. A 56-14 blowout of lowly Oregon State set up the season finale.
UCLA and USC were both 6-0 in league play. The Trojans were the defending national champions, although with a loss and a tie in non-conference games, were out of that picture. But this rivalry stands on its own in any case, and certainly when it’s winner-take-all for the Rose Bowl.
Through six conference games, the Bruins had been the more impressive team. But on the day that counted, USC—with Pat Haden at quarterback and Lynn Swann at wide receiver to go along with the exceptional running talents of Davis—was better. UCLA lost 23-13.
In this era, neither the Big Ten or the Pac-8 sent their runner-ups to bowl games, so the USC loss marked the end of the season. UCLA finished #12. It was also the end of the short era for Pepper Rodgers. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Rodgers went back to his alma mater to coach.
Meaning nothing against Rodgers, this ended up working out pretty well for UCLA. They hired a guy named Dick Vermeil. Two years later, Sciarra was an All-American quarterback and the Bruins won the Rose Bowl.
Ultimately, the 1973 UCLA football season was typical, in ways both good and bad. Good, in that there’s no question these Bruins were a sound team. But the long shadow of Wooden’s basketball team and—more importantly—the football program at USC—always managed to overshadow UCLA’s gridiron efforts.