Iowa came to the 1986 Rose Bowl looking to put the finishing touches on what had been a special season. UCLA wanted to put the seal on what had become a great four-year run of winning New Year’s Day bowl games. Here’s a look back at the roads the Hawkeyes and Bruins took through the 1985 college football season and to their January 1 meeting in Pasadena.
UCLA had won the Rose Bowl following the 1982 and 1983 seasons. They didn’t get here in 1984, but did get an invite to the Fiesta Bowl, where they won. Head coach Terry Donahue had his program on a high.
The Bruins were led by David Norrie at quarterback, who won the job away from Matt Stevens early in the season. Norrie validated Donahue’s confidence, with a 64 percent completion rate that was second in a Pac-10 filled with good passing offenses. UCLA didn’t throw quite as often, but Norrie made his passes count, with an 8.5 yards-per-attempt that was the league’s best and his ten interceptions were the second-lowest among regular starters.
A well-balanced running game made the offense hum, with Gaston Green and Eric Ball each going for over 700 yards and ranking 4th and 5th among conference rushers in yardage. Ball was the league’s most explosive back, getting 5.8 yards-per-attempt. They were supported on the outside by deep threat Mike Sherrard, a future NFL first-round draft pick, and Karl Dorrell, a future head coach here in Westwood.
The defense was anchored by Mark Walen and the versatile player officially listed at defensive tackle, but who lined up most everywhere, was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. In the secondary, James Washington had five interceptions.
Despite the recent pedigree of success, and despite the fact that John Lee, the best kicker in the country, gave UCLA a huge edge in any close game, the Bruins were only ranked #20 to start the 1985 college football season.
It wouldn’t take long for them to make their mark. The opening game was at BYU. The Cougars were the defending national champion and ranked #10 to start this season. The game was a 4:30 PM ET start on ESPN, at a time when the still-young network didn’t have college football televised wall-to-wall.
An opportunistic defense delivered the Bruins in Provo. They got five turnovers, including a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown by Craig Rutledge. UCLA got field goals from Lee off the other four turnovers. They still trailed 24-19, when Sherrard got deep late in the game for a 62-yard catch that set up a short touchdown run. UCLA’s 27-24 win moved them up to #14 in the polls.
No one could accuse Donahue of ducking anyone in non-conference competition. Even though Tennessee didn’t have a strong recent history, this was a year they would rise up and win the Sugar Bowl. UCLA went to Knoxville and came out with a 26-26 tie, one that got them enough respect to be nudged up #12 nationally.
A 34-16 rout of mediocre San Diego State closed out the non-conference schedule and then UCLA opened Pac-10 play with a 21-14 loss at Washington, who had finished #2 in the nation. Unforgiving pollsters dropped the Bruins from the land of the ranked.
UCLA hosted a good Arizona State team that would contend with them to the end of the season and had a talented future NFL strong safety in David Fulcher. The Bruins put a 40-17 beating on the Sun Devils, and then followed it up by blasting bad teams in Stanford, Washington State and Cal by a combined 99-26.
Coming into the games of November 9, UCLA was tied with Washington atop the league standings at 4-1, though the Huskies of course had the tiebreaker. USC, Arizona and Arizona State all had just one league loss themselves, at 3-1 each, so there was a lot to be settled in November.
UCLA started by going to Arizona. The Bruins got an early touchdown when the Wildcats muffed a punt attempt and set up a gift score. UCLA took a 24-7 lead by late in the third quarter, with Green running well and scoring three touchdowns. Arizona rallied and closed to 24-19 with three minutes left, but the Bruins covered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
There was good news elsewhere in the league, as USC and Washington both lost. The only one-loss teams were UCLA and Arizona State and now the Bruins had the tiebreaker advantage.
They blew out lowly Oregon State 41-10 and it set up a dramatic rivalry Saturday. UCLA went crosstown to play USC. The Trojans were 5-5 and playing for a bowl bid. They upset the Bruins 17-13. But that night, Arizona State lost to Arizona 16-13. In the chaos, Washington might have created a three-way tie but they lost to Washington State.
It wasn’t exactly an inspiring finish, but UCLA was still 8-2-1 against a very good schedule, still ranked #13 and still going to the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years.
Iowa had their breakthrough season in 1981 under Hayden Fry, when they cracked the Michigan-Ohio State monopoly on the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl bid and came to Pasadena. In the ensuing three years, Fry’s teams went 25-11-1, establishing they were no one-year wonder. Expectations were high for 1985, with a preseason #4 national ranking and the hopes of getting back to the Rose Bowl, and this time, winning it.
Chuck Long was at the heart of the expectations. Even though he threw 351 times—the most of any New Year’s Day quarterback except Miami’s Vinny Testaverde, who threw 352—Long remained efficient. He completed 66 percent of his passes and though the interceptions were high, at 15, so were the touchdown passes, at 26.
He shared Big Ten MVP honors with Michigan State’s 2,000-yard running back Lorenzo White, and Long finished second to Bo Jackson in one of the closest Heisman Trophy votes in history.
Long’s weapons started with the versatile running back Ronnie Harmon. An NFL future ahead of him, Harmon ran for over 1,100 yards and caught 49 passes for nearly 600 yards. The receiving corps was well-balanced, with wideout Bill Happell and tight end Scott Halverson working secondaries from every angle.
Larry Station was the heart and soul of the defense and a consensus All-American linebacker. The secondary could play the ball, with Jay Norvel and Devon Mitchell combining for five interceptions. Iowa opened the season with three non-descript games against Drake, Northern Illinois and Iowa State and won by a combined 163-23.
When the dust settled, Iowa was #1 in the country going into the Big Ten schedule. They got a big scare at home against Michigan State, needing Long to take in a bootleg touchdown run to secure a 35-31 win. The Hawkeyes followed that up with a 23-13 win over so-so Wisconsin. Now it was time for the game that had the entire Midwest, indeed the entire nation fired up—the #1 vs #2 battle with Michigan in Iowa City.
After a scoreless first quarter, Long appeared to have broken the ice when he hit Helverson in the back of the end zone. The pass was ruled incomplete, although replay showed it was a completed pass. Under today’s rules with replay, Iowa would have had a touchdown. In 1985, they settled for a field goal.
Michigan promptly brought the kickoff back 60 yards, setting up a quick touchdown. Iowa came back with two more field goals, but another special teams mishap allowed a long kickoff return setting up a Wolverine field goal. In spite of controlling the flow of play, the Hawkeyes trailed 10-9 in the closing minutes.
Long came up big when it mattered most. He converted three third-down throws and moved his team to the 12-yard line. Kicker Rob Houghtlin came on and hit the game-winner on the final play. Iowa won 12-10 and national championship talk was flowing freely.
After a 49-10 blasting of Northwestern, the national title talk got squashed—or more accurately, rained on, in Columbus. Playing in the sloppy wet, Iowa lost to Ohio State 22-13. The Hawkeyes were still #6 in the country, but now the Buckeyes controlled the path to Pasadena.
Iowa took care of their end of things against a pretty good Illinois team that was in close pursuit of the Big Ten lead. The Hawkeyes blasted the Illini 59-0. A shootout with Purdue, with NFL-bound Jim Everett at quarterback followed. Everett’s 3,600 passing yards this season were higher than Long’s, but Iowa pulled out a 27-24 win in West Lafayette.
That same day, Wisconsin did Iowa a big solid, and beat Ohio State 12-7. Iowa was back in the driver’s seat. They needed only beat Minnesota in the season finale to wrap up the Pasadena trip. If the Hawkeyes lost, the Michigan-Ohio State winner would go.
This was a competitive Minnesota team, one that was 6-4 coming in and played well enough to get head coach Lou Holtz the Notre Dame job for the following season. The Hawkeyes still dismantled the Gophers 31-9. Iowa was back into the top five, at #4, and headed back to the Rose Bowl.
The game would be a tale of two running backs. Much was made coming into the game about how this year’s Iowa team was not there to enjoy the sights and sounds of SoCal the way they presumably were in 1981. This year it was all about winning. Perhaps it created too much pressure.
Harmon would fumble four times, and was never able to get untracked. Long threw for 319 yards, but without support from his defense or his running game, it wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, UCLA, even with Norrie out with a thigh injury, was getting all the support it needed. Ball had the game of his life, with 227 yards and four touchdowns. Stevens played efficiently and the offense produced 488 total yards.
With Ball going crazy as Harmon melted down, the result was a 45-28 UCLA win. Fry would get Iowa back to this stage one more time, following the 1990 season, but never did get a win. Just as surprising is that Donahue never won this bowl game again either.
UCLA didn’t disappear and won the Cotton Bowl in 1988 with Troy Aikman at quarterback. They returned to the Rose Bowl under Donahue in 1993, and under Bob Toledo in 1998, but lost to Wisconsin. New Year’s Day 1986 was the last time UCLA won the major bowl game at their home stadium.