UCLA and Illinois came to the 1984 Rose Bowl with two very different heritages and two paths through the 1983 college football season that were quite different. The Bruins were the defending Rose Bowl champions, but had struggled to a 6-4-1 record in 1983. The Illini hadn’t been to Pasadena since 1963, but arrived this year as a 10-1 team, ranked fourth in the nation. Let’s look back on the paths each team took to the Rose Bowl…
Terry Donahue’s UCLA program had a breakthrough Rose Bowl win in 1982, his first major bowl victory since taking over in 1976. He had a team led by a future head coach, in quarterback Rick Neuheisel, who completed both a high percentage of his passes—69%–and still generated 8.4 yards-per-attempt.
Neuheisel is remembered today as the coach of both Colorado and Washington who was chased out of college football for betting on the NCAA Tournament, but those numbers indicate he was a pretty good college quarterback in the day. Neuheisel was good enough to keep junior Steve Bono, a future NFL starter, on the bench.
The top targets were sophomore Mike Sherrard, a future first-round draft choice and tight end Paul Bergmann. The second wide receiver was another future head coach, Karl Dorrell, who took over his alma mater and led a memorable upset of second-ranked USC in 2006.
Donahue’s backfield was well-balanced, led by Kevin Nelson with support from Frank Cephous and Danny Andrews. The defense was led by hard-hitting All-American safety Don Rogers. UCLA opened the season ranked #20 and had a difficult non-conference schedule ahead.
The first game was on the road at 15th-ranked Georgia. The Bruins dropped a tough 19-8 decision when a potential game-winning drive in the closing minute ended with a Pick-6 going back the other way. UCLA then played Arizona State, a winning program that had been the top competition for the Rose Bowl in 1982, to a 26-26 tie.
A visit to top-ranked Nebraska followed and ended with the Bruins taking the worst of a 42-10 pummeling to a Cornhusker team that would finish the regular season undefeated and had one of the great running games of all time. UCLA then experienced an offense of a completely different color—BYU’s pass-happy attack led by Steve Young and lost 37-35.
The season was into October and the Bruins had yet to win a game. Fortunately, their Pac-10 record was still 0-0-1 and the games to settle the Rose Bowl bid were still to come.
UCLA beat lowly Stanford 39-21 and then went on the road to a pretty good Washington State team and won 24-14. The Bruins survived mediocre Cal 20-16 and were in business as they prepared to host 11th-ranked Washington on the final Saturday of October.
A 27-24 win gave UCLA sole possession of first place in the Pac-10, and they followed it up with a 24-13 win at subpar Oregon. But a road trip to Arizona, coached by future nemesis Larry Smith, who would take USC to three straight Rose Bowls later in the decade, ended badly in a 27-24 loss.
Just as had been the case a year earlier, UCLA needed to get help. They needed to beat USC, not only to stay alive for the Rose Bowl, but just to ensure a winning season. Then Washington needed to lose to Washington State. For the second straight season, fortune smiled on Donahue. They beat USC 27-17 and got word the Huskies had lost to their archrival.
UCLA was unranked and barely over .500, but they were Rose Bowl bound again.
Since Illinois’ last Rose Bowl trip exactly twenty years earlier, they had been essentially off the football map. The Illini had not even enjoyed a winning season since 1974. Mike White became head coach in 1980, and in 1981-82 he ended that drought with consecutive seven-win campaigns.
Illinois was led by future NFL quarterback Jack Trudeau, who completed 63% of his passes, averaged a solid 7.5 yards-per-attempt and threw 18 touchdowns. He had an excellent wide receiver in David Williams, who caught 59 passes for 870 yards.
Tight end Tim Brewster was another key target, with 59 more catches and 628 yards. Brewster also added to the list of future head coaches playing in this year’s Rose Bowl, as he later coached at Minnesota.
Thomas Rooks was the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, with 842 yards, while Dwight Beverley was an effective second back, racking up 685 more. Defensively, the secondary had a pair of ballhawks in David Edwards and Mike Heaven, with five interceptions apiece.
But the best player on the 1983 Illinois football team was none of the above. Defensive end Don Thorp was a one-man wrecking crew, so much so that he not only made All-American, he won Big Ten Player of the Year.
In spite of their improvement over the previous two seasons, Illinois was still under the radar when the season began, unranked in the polls. When they lost 28-18 at Missouri, a decent team that would win seven games, it seemed to validate that lack of belief.
The Illini got an unimpressive 17-7 win over Stanford, then won 20-10 at subpar Michigan State. The first sign that something special might be brewing in Champaign came on October 1. Fourth-ranked Iowa, with talented sophomore quarterback Chuck Long, came to town and left with a stunning 33-0 loss hung on them. Illinois appeared in the polls for the first time at #19.
They followed it up by going to Wisconsin, another pretty good team that won seven games, and like Iowa had a nice quarterback in Randy Wright. Illinois won 27-15 and were set to host sixth-ranked Ohio State.
Illinois led 10-3 at the half, but Trudeau then threw an interception deep in his own end and set up a tying touchdown for the Buckeyes. Ohio State took a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, but also missed a 27-yard field goal that could have widened the lead to six.
The Illini got the ball on their own 17-yard line late in the game and Trudeau led a rapid-fire drive in just five plays. It was capped when Rooks bounced to the right sideline and took off on a 21-yard touchdown with 1:06 left. Illinois held on for the 17-13 win and moved up to #11.
They beat Purdue 35-21, a victory that doesn’t look impressive, given the Boilermakers’ eventual 3-7-1 record. But it was that road sandwich game—stuck right in between Ohio State and the impending arrival of Michigan.
The Wolverines and Illini were the only teams unbeaten in Big Ten play. Michigan was ranked #6 and head coach Bo Schembecler had never lost to Illinois. But if this Illini team could change that in front of a national TV audience, they would be in complete command of the Big Ten race.
Trudeau was sloppy and committed a couple foolish turnovers that cost his team points. But the Thorp-led defense was dominant and Illinois led 7-6 midway through the third quarter. The quarterback stepped up and redeemed himself with a touchdown pass to Williams, who made a nice catch-and-run and found the left sideline. A subsequent safety put the game away, 16-6.
Illinois now needed to just win two of their final three games, and they would come against the three worst teams in the Big Ten, Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern. How sure was everyone the Illini were in? CBS play-by-play man concluded the telecast of the Michigan game by saying “Illinois is headed to Pasadena.”
This wouldn’t be a “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment in the annals of sports journalism. Illinois won those three games by a combined 155-68 to lock up both the Rose Bowl and the outright Big Ten crown. They were #4 in the country as the regular season came to a close.
Illinois did not have a real chance at the national championship even though the three teams ahead of them—Nebraska, Texas and Auburn—were all in different bowls. From the perspective of game-day morning on January 2, no one expected Nebraska or Texas to lose. Even when the Rose Bowl began, and the upset loss suffered by Texas was already known, no one expected Nebraska to lose.
And even though we know now that the Cornhuskers would lose an epic Orange Bowl game to Miami, the fifth-ranked Hurricanes vaulted victorious Auburn for the national title and would certainly have done the same to Illinois. But there was never a chance to find out, due to a Rose Bowl game that no one expected.
The day started badly for UCLA—several players were unable to go because of food poisoning and Neuheisel was so sick that Donahue put him on a private car to the stadium rather than the bus, because the coach feared the mere sight of the starting quarterback would depress the rest of the team.
Once the game started it was a different story. Rogers quickly intercepted Trudeau and set up a field goal attempt. It was blocked, but Illinois fumbled it right back and the tone was set.
With a 7-3 lead, Rogers intercepted another pass and Neuheisel hit Dorrell with a 16-yard touchdown pass. The score was 21-3 by the half. Neuheisel and Dorrell hooked up again in the second half, and the quarterback set a Rose Bowl record with four touchdown passes. The lead grew as high as 38-3 and ended at 45-9.
Illinois’ time in the sun was brief—they would not win the Big Ten title again until 2001. As for Donahue, he was now halfway through a major bowl run that would see him win four straight, three of them right here in Pasadena.