The 1976 UCLA football team was embarking on a new era. In 1975, after winning the Rose Bowl and finishing in the national top 5, head coach Dick Vermeil left for the NFL. The Bruins tapped Terry Donahue to take over. It began a 20-year tenure for Donahue in Westwood. In his first year, he contended for the national championship deep into the regular season before a hard ending left a bit of sour taste in Bruin mouths.
UCLA had the fourth-best scoring offense in the country and it was fueled almost entirely by a potent running game. Quarterback Jeff Dankworth didn’t pass a lot and was particularly effective when he did. But he ran for 755 yards. The running back tandem of Theotis Brown and Wendell Tyler each cleared the 900-yard threshold. All of them averaged better than five yards a pop, running behind a line anchored by center Mitch Kahn.
The defense was anchored by sophomore linebacker Jerry Robinson, and the future NFL starter was an All-American. Oscar Edwards was reliable in the secondary. UCLA’s D ranked a respectable 16th in the nation for points allowed.
The Bruins were ranked #17 to start the country and they had a high-profile opener. Arizona State was ranked #3, coming off an undefeated 1975 where they finished #2 in the final polls. The game in Tempe was nationally televised on a Thursday night, something that was rare in this era of TV sports.
And what a statement UCLA made. Dankworth ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Brown rushed for 127 yards and two scores of his own. As a team, the Bruins nearly reached the 500-yard mark for rush yardage. They won 28-0. In retrospect, we know that this Arizona State team would collapse and only finish 4-7. But in the moment, UCLA went skyrocketing to #5 in the rankings.
Arizona was next, and the Bruins dispensed with the mediocre Wildcats 37-9 in the home opener. A home game against shaky Air Force produced a 40-7 rout. That set up a trip to Ohio State to close out the non-conference portion of the schedule (Arizona State and Arizona didn’t join the Pac-8 until 1978).
The Buckeyes were ranked #8. They had an impressive win at Penn State, and an aggravating home loss to Missouri. UCLA played Ohio State to a 10-10 tie on the road and held at #5 in the polls with Pac-8 play beginning.
Stanford had a respectable team in 1976, but when the Cardinal came to Westwood, they left with a 38-20 loss. UCLA then hosted Washington State, who had future NFL quarterback Jack Thompson. The Bruins crushed a bad Cougars team 62-3. A 35-19 win over Cal, and their big-play receiver Wesley Walker, moved UCLA to #3 in the rankings.
The Bruins went to Washington, who had a mediocre team this year, but was just one year away from winning the Rose Bowl behind an up-and-coming quarterback named Warren Moon. UCLA won 30-21.
As November arrived, UCLA was in good position for the national title. Michigan was ranked #1, but the Bruins could play the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl if both teams got there. Pitt was sitting at #2, but if UCLA had a bowl win over the top-ranked team, vaulting past the Panthers was well within the realm of possibility.
On November 6, Michigan was upset at Purdue and Pitt moved to the top of the polls. UCLA, who hammered a subpar Oregon squad 46-zip, was sitting at #2. But they could no longer get the cache of beating the #1 team in a bowl game to get past Pitt.
In the meantime, UCLA went north to Corvallis and crushed Oregon State 45-14. It set up the big showdown with USC. The Trojans were ranked #3. It was winner-take-all for the conference title, Rose Bowl bid, and possible shot at a national championship.
It was at this point that the Bruins’ one-dimensional offense came home to roost. USC completely shut them down for 3 ½ quarters. By the time UCLA launched any kind of scoring threat, they trailed 24-0 and the party had begun on the Trojan sidelines. The 24-14 loss was deceptively close.
Bowl controversy was next. There were only four major bowl games (Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange) and only three spots available for non-conference champs. Pitt, as an independent, was obviously one of them. The Panthers went to the Sugar Bowl, where they would beat Georgia for the national title. Maryland, also undefeated, got the Cotton Bowl spot. That left the Orange Bowl with a decision to make.
Would the Orange take UCLA or Ohio State? The Bruins had a better overall record (9-1-1, to 8-2-1). The head-to-head tie had taken place in Columbus, so you can reasonably argue that it was more impressive for the Bruins. UCLA, even after the USC loss, was ranked #7, while Ohio State was #11.
But these are all football considerations. What the Orange Bowl saw was that Buckeye fans would travel better than Bruins fans. And, from a television perspective, having a team from the Rustbelt balance off Big Eight tri-champ Colorado was seen as preferable to two teams from the west. We know what matters most when it comes to bowl selection, so Ohio State got the bid.
Having said that…UCLA didn’t exactly acquit themselves well in the bowl opportunity they did get. With Bear Bryant’s Alabama having a bit off an off-year, the Liberty Bowl was able to pair up the Bruins and the Crimson Tide. It was the juiciest matchup on the undercard. And UCLA again did nothing offensively, losing 36-6. They fell to #17 in the final polls.
It would take a few years to ultimately get over the hump that was USC. It was 1982 when Donahue made his first Rose Bowl. But that started an impressive postseason run. UCLA won that Rose Bowl in ’82. They went back to Pasadena in 1983 and won again. They got a Fiesta Bowl bid in 1984 and won. And in 1985, they won the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years. The Donahue era was marked by bowl victories. It was an era that started in 1976.