During the past 12 years, UCLA has only defeated USC one time.
It is a game etched in the memories of Bruin blue, those for whom the numbers 13 and nine have a special significance.
A dozen years, 11 heartbreaks, one redemption.
In 2006, sophomore quarterback Pat Cowan, junior defensive end Bruce Davis, junior safety Chris Horton, senior defensive end Justin Hickman and Co. tasted that redemption, their 13-9 win at the Rose Bowl knocking the No. 2 Trojans out of national championship consideration.
Five years later, they still hold on tightly to the memories.
They joined UCLA beat writer Jon Gold for lengthy conversations about the build-up to that day, the game, the win, the celebration, and what it means to them a half-decade later.
Five years later, the Bruins are still hoping for another win over USC.
In 2006, things were looking up for the Bruins once more. A year after Drew Olson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis led UCLA to a 10-2 record, the team was off to a 4-1 start, picking up momentum with consecutive wins over Stanford and Arizona by total a score of 58-7. With an ultra-talented defense and an emerging offense, UCLA was on the verge of being ranked. Instead, they tanked.
Pat Cowan: “We had a four-game losing streak – lost at Oregon, a real tough one at Notre Dame, a bad loss to Washington State and we lost at Berkeley – but coming off a 10-win season, we always knew we had a good team.”
Bruce Davis: “We had a team meeting and we talked about where we were at, a players-only meeting. Christian Taylor and I called the meeting; we weren’t happy. We had three games to go and we knew we had to win all three.”
Justin Hickman: “We were a struggling team. We were mediocre all year. We knew we had to do something or we’d have a very bad season.”
Cowan: “We refocused, and our goal was to go 3-0.”
In order to go 3-0, UCLA would have to go 2-0, and it did, with wins over Oregon State at the Rose Bowl and over Arizona State in Tempe. It went a long way toward cooling off Karl Dorrell’s hot seat, but he wasn’t exactly on solid ground.
Hickman: “It was always in the back of our minds and we didn’t talk about it. We knew Coach Dorrell was on the hot seat, and closing out the season right and beating USC would get him off it.”
Davis: “Going in, we’d won two in a row, and with the talent we had on that football team, there was no reason we couldn’t beat those guys. Nobody was like, let’s work extra hard. We were already working as hard as we could.”
Cowan: “You don’t want to say that you focus more during the week for USC – because you want to give the same effort every week – but you always give a little bit more.”
Davis: “I remember players-only film sessions. Offensive guys would stay on their own, and defensively we’d have meetings, with all the guys taking notes.”
Perhaps no one was studying harder than Cowan. The junior quarterback had taken over for starter Ben Olson in Week 5 after Olson was sidelined with a torn knee ligament in a big win over Arizona. Cowan’s first career starts were rough, coinciding with the Bruins’ four-game losing streak, but he turned it on late with four touchdowns and one interception against the Beavers and Sun Devils. But his hold on the starter spot was tenuous, and Olson’s return was anticipated. Olson fought to regain his spot, but Cowan was named starter Wednesday, and the excitement grew.
Cowan: “I was always preparing for games no matter what. I truly believe you were always one play away from playing. I was prepared to play for that game.”
Davis: “We practiced against him every day and we knew what he was capable of. We knew he was elusive and fast, more than people gave him credit for, but besides the physical things you can quantify, we knew Pat had this attitude. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Pat Cowan could go out and win the game.”
Maybe around Spaulding Field that was true, but not everywhere. Probably not anywhere else, to be honest. USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation, 47-3 in its past 50 games, blessed with more talent than some college all-star teams. The Trojans had won seven straight over the Bruins.
Davis: “I remember (defensive coordinator Dewayne Walker) saying, `The only people who think you can win are on this team. Even some of your parents are just being nice to you, telling you you’re gonna win. They don’t believe it.”‘
Horton: “That first year I played them, the halftime score might’ve been 40-2. They were good, man.”
Davis: “When you get on a losing streak to a team you see every year like that, that makes you intense. They were super talented, every year. Year in, year out. That year it didn’t matter. We were hearing in the paper that it’s been seven years, they’re going to make it eight. You don’t want to go four or five years and not beat USC. That was important to us.”
Horton: “We were at home, they were No. 2. This is a national stage. This is a game everyone would be watching, with them playing for a national championship trip. We had nothing to lose and they had everything to gain.”
It was more than just intrinsic motivation, though. UCLA had a gameplan. Get to the quarterback, and quick.
Hickman: “We saw things we could take advantage of on film. You get to John David Booty and you hit him, and they cringe under pressure. Me, Bruce, Kevin (Brown) and Brigham (Harwell) took it on ourselves to dominate the line of scrimmage.”
Davis: “Justin and I were roommates, and we’d watch College Football Gameday every Saturday, and I remember being rudely awakened by Justin yelling that we were about to be on, and they brought him and I up, and they said there’s no way we’re going to have an impact on the game. Justin and I are a lot alike, and we hear something like that, and it’s going to piss us off. We looked at each other and we said, `That’s BS. Let’s go out and make our mark.’ That was at 7:30 in the morning.”
Properly motivated, all that remained was the game. It wasn’t exactly one for the ages. The offenses were sloppy, contained, perhaps boring. But a fourth-and-1 stop by the Bruins at their 31-yard line on USC’s first drive got the Rose Bowl buzzing.
Horton: “Once the ball was kicked, everything else goes out the window. It’ a game. Xs and Os, coaches, players trying to make plays. All that extra stuff is before and after. All you’re worried about then is making the next play.”
Cowan: “I don’t want to make an analogy because I don’t know anything about boxing, but the whole idea of, `You have to withstand the first blow,’ was here. You just have to keep going back and forth and back and forth. I know that when we stepped up and said we’re going to be here all day, and it was evident early with Bruce, and Justin and Reggie that we were gonna hit and get hit, that we were in it.”
Davis: “I remember Coach Walker pacing up and down the field and I remember how hot it was. But the thing I remember the most was how much my side was hurting, because I cracked my ribs early in the game. `Whatever,’ I thought, `I’ll worry about it later.”‘
It was hot enough, but UCLA kept turning up the heat on Booty, and the Bruins took a 7-0 lead on a Cowan 1-yard touchdown run with 1minute, 29 seconds left in the first quarter. USC got on the board with a safety with 12:09 left in the first half and took the lead with 45 seconds left in the half on a 1-yard C.J. Gable run. But for a team used to scoring in the 40s, a 9-7 lead was a bit of a shock. Not as much of a shock as when the Bruins reclaimed the lead – then added to it – with a pair of field goals.
Horton: “They weren’t scoring points and our offense was moving the ball. We saw right then and there that it could be done.”
Hickman: “It was so nerve-wracking. We weren’t doing much on offense, but Pat made a few plays with his legs. That gave the whole sideline energy.”
Davis: “Justin and I went out there angry, and we did what we did. And my Facebook profile picture right now at this moment is he and I hitting John David Booty extremely hard.”
Booty may have been getting smashed, but Cowan’s afternoon was not exactly a leisurely stroll through a wide-open park. The by-product of 10 carries for 55 yards and a score? Punishment, particularly the kind doled out by linebacker Rey Maualuga, who absolutely annihilated Cowan in the mid-fourth quarter, with the game still in doubt. Cowan was thought to be left dazed and confused, but he popped right back up and ran, shoulder pads astray, to the UCLA sideline.
Hickman: “I think they saw how quick they hopped up and it kind of demoralized them.”
Davis: “I can remember Pat Cowan getting hit by Rey Maualuga and hopping up and running to the huddle like it was no problem.”
It was a jarring play, but more important for USC, it gave Booty the ball back with 5:52 left, ample time for a powerful Trojans passing game. And UCLA’s nightmare appeared to be coming true, as Booty connected on 6 of 9 passes for 55 yards to move the ball to the Bruins’ 19-yard line. Then, Eric McNeal sealed UCLA’s – and the Trojans’ – fate with a diving interception.
Horton: “I definitely remember the play. I think we were playing Cover-2, and I was right behind E-Mac, I was a little bit deeper, softer coverage, but I just came sprinting.”
Hickman: “I was actually a spectator – I was able to watch it. I was happy for E-Mac – a highly touted cornerback who had a topsy-turvy career – for him to make that play.”
Davis: “Greatest play ever. Eric’s parents are my godparents; we’ve got pictures of Eric and me growing up and throwing a football around. Knowing him, the situation he went through, moving from safety to linebacker; he was another guy who never complained, went to work, a true Bruin, For him to be able to step up in that game and really make the play to seal the game I don’t think there was another player on that field who deserved to make the play like he did.”
Cowan: “Even after Eric intercepted the ball, it wasn’t over. I remember Chris was an inch away from breaking an 80-yard run, and he didn’t and we had to punt and then we had to play defense.”
The Trojans got the ball back for one final play, a heave by Booty at the 12-yard line that fell incomplete. Chaos ensued.
Cowan: “I remember Bruce Davis ran up to the camera and he did his Lee Corso, `You’re Wrong’ speech, and that was all fun, but truthfully, we were just like everyone is writing us off, let’s just go beat them.”
Horton: Every year it was, `This is the year we’re going to go do it.’ All those teams fought hard, but we were outmatched. That year, that 2006 year, we found a way to say you know what, this is going to be the year.”
Cowan: “I remember after that game, we were just chanting 3-0.”
Eventually, in a stupor of excitement, the Bruins made their way back onto the bus. Soon enough, after the long drive from Pasadena, they found their way back to Westwood. More chaos.
Horton: “If you were a Bruin that night, you know what Westwood was like. It was unbelievable. Not only did we beat this team, we spoiled their chances. Pulling back over there, the streets were crowded, people were running around going crazy.”
Davis: “I’m gonna say it like this: We got back to Westwood and it was the most ridiculous thing ever. I remember seeing couches on fire, I saw a couch come out of a window. Streets were blocked off. It was ridiculous. It was packed.”
Hickman: “We all knew we’d have to hit the streets. It was one of those unspoken things. All the students on campus had never experienced beating USC. They were burning cars. It was madness, man.”
Davis: “It was almost surreal.”
Hickman: “Walking down the street, hearing, `I love you guys!’ People running up and down the street in their underwear. I have no idea what time I went to sleep that night. Very early in the morning.”
Five years later, reality has not sunk in: In 12 years, this was the only UCLA team to beat USC. For many Bruins that day, it was a moment they’ll never replicate, much less forget. Thirteen-to-nine.
Davis: “I don’t say this lightly: My rookie year with the Steelers, we won the Super Bowl, and thats something that’s so rare for a football player – Pee-Wee to the NFL, to be at the pinnacle of this game is amazing. To see that confetti fall, to kiss the Lombardi Trophy. It was amazing. That is probably my second-fondest memory. First and always will be beating USC.”
Cowan: “All I remember I wanted to do was be jumping around with my teammates. Every single one of us, that’s why we woke up at five in the morning to get yelled at and run sprints.”
Davis: “At the end of the day, the NFL is a business, a business I respect, a game I love, but a business. There were guys out there when we beat USC that were never going to play football again. It meant so much to them. Growing up for me it was Bruins or nothing. That was just an understanding that was part of my family. I was raised as a Bruin, without question, and this is something you never forget. Some of those USC guys I still talk to. Guys I play with, some of my best friends. They act like, `Oh, yeah, you only won that one time.’ I’ve been in a Twitter battle with Thomas Williams, and we’ve been going back and forth like we’re ready to play in this game. That’s going to be my best memory.”
Cowan: “I remember at my graduation when I walked two years later, and this dude comes up to me, never met him before. `Pat? That night was the best night of my life. Thank you so much.’ I started laughing. He was so genuine. `Best night of my life.’ I couldn’t stop laughing. I remember another person came up and he said, `You know, I have a family of six or seven and all of them are USC fans, and I’m the only UCLA fan, and I get grief every year,’ and he says, `Thank you, I can sit at my house and not get crap.”‘
Horton: “We won it for every guy who lost before us.”