Friday, March 22

UCLA’s unlikely, unforgettable ‘Rout 66′

The upcoming Bruin-Longhorn matchup conjures memories of inspirational 1997 game in Austin

For Kris Farris, the feeling started on the bus ride.

The hotel was a couple of miles from the stadium, but as they pulled out, he could already see the burnt orange in full bloom lining the streets. And there was that feeling again.

Something was happening. Something big.

Something bigger than the thousands of people looking up at him as the bus rolled by, bigger than the colossal second level of the stadium that rose in the distance, and bigger even than the 6-foot-8-inch, 300-plus-pound Farris himself.

By the end of the day, he would be able to give a name to the sensation: This is what it felt like to be on a football team in perfect unison.

“I think that was the best performance we ever had,” he said.

It has now been 13 years since the UCLA football team last played a game in Austin, Texas, but it will take a lot longer than that for its outcome to be forgotten.

An Unlikely Victory

The Bruins started out the 1997 season with two straight losses.

The two quarterbacks they faced ““ Washington State’s Ryan Leaf and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning ““ would later go No. 1 and No. 2 in the next NFL Draft, but in early September, UCLA was still kicking itself for dropping both contests.

“We felt we should have been 2-0 at that time,” said Skip Hicks, the team’s senior starting running back that season. “We thought we had a national championship team that year and it was hard because after the two losses, I wouldn’t say it took us for a loop, but it was hard to gain respect after that.”

Second-year coach Bob Toledo already had one underwhelming season under his belt and a date with No. 11 Texas in Austin made it look like another one was fast approaching.

That was until the game started.

The Bruins had a 10-0 lead as the first quarter ended, but the Longhorns were driving, and with star tailback Ricky Williams in the backfield, they could always be considered dangerous.

Then, on the first play of the second quarter UCLA sacked Texas’s quarterback and recovered the ball. The next play, Bruin junior quarterback Cade McNown threw a sideline pass to Hicks, who found the endzone from 43 yards out.

The next Texas possession was another turnover, this time an interception. The UCLA offense again scored on one play.

It was methodical football. It was physical and aggressive football. But there was an order to the Bruins’ persistent attack. The defense hit you. Then, the offense hit you.

“We had a couple plays go for us really early, and before we knew it, we had a good lead and just kept going and going and going,” said Farris, the team’s sophomore starting left tackle.

By halftime, UCLA’s lead was 38-0.

“Everyone seemed to play well,” Farris said. “It wasn’t just Cade who had a great game. It was our defense had a great game, our line had a great game, our receivers had a great game.”

“The confidence was widespread.”

On offense, seven different Bruin receivers had double-digit receiving yards. On defense, 13 different Bruins had recovered a fumble, grabbed an interception, or forced a sack.

Though he would go on to break the NCAA’s career rushing record the next season, the future Heisman Trophy winner Williams gained just 36 net yards on the ground.

By the end of UCLA’s 66-3 win, the massive stadium had been drained of its fans, its deafening noise and all of its intimidation.

“To beat a team that was ranked that high with some very good players in their stadium in a hostile environment, I think we all left that game thinking that we could beat anyone anywhere,” Farris said. “That confidence carried us quite a bit for the rest of the year.”

The game had been a homecoming for Hicks, who grew up playing high school football in North Texas.

“I know, myself, I wanted to put up a good showing for the people I grew up with,” Hicks said. “A lot of my family had never had a chance to see me play out at UCLA.”

“I was glad that not only was I able to do well, but to do well as a team, to come out from California and put on a display of what we thought UCLA football was and is.”

Hicks, like most every Bruin who played that day, did not disappoint. He gained 158 total yards and scored three touchdowns.
“I feel it was really a turning point in our program for years to come,” Hicks said.

Gaining Momentum

UCLA would go on to win 20 straight games, starting with its blowout victory against Texas. The 1997 team swept the rest of its regular season, earning a No. 5 ranking and a return trip to the Lone Star State for the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where the Bruins defeated Texas A&M.

Hicks finished his senior year by setting the then-Pac-10 records for touchdowns in a season, with 26, and in a career, with 55. A few months later, the Washington Redskins picked him in the third round of the NFL Draft.

With many of its players returning, including McNown in his fourth year as starter, UCLA spent the entire next season ranked in the AP’s Top 10. This time in Pasadena, the Longhorns were the Bruins’ first opponent of the season and, though the score was not nearly as lopsided, UCLA won again, 49-31.

The Bruins would post a perfect conference season that year en route to a January trip to the Rose Bowl.

Both Hicks and Farris credited the win at Texas from the year before as the major catalyst for the team’s continued success, but also for giving the necessary exposure to the individuals involved.

“It was a really great opportunity for a lot of the guys on our team to display what we thought we had there at UCLA,” Hicks said.

McNown finished third in the 1998 Heisman Trophy race, losing out to Williams of Texas. The Bruin quarterback was selected 13th in the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.

Farris won the 1998 Outland Trophy as a junior, an award given annually to the nation’s best interior lineman and was drafted in the third round. Bruin safety Larry Atkins was selected 10 picks later. Atkins had been a junior when the team went to Austin, where he grabbed two interceptions and recorded a sack.

The 66-3 game, or “Rout 66″ as it is sometimes referred to, had major repercussions in Texas as well. The university fired six-year head coach John Mackovic after the team finished the 1997 season at 4-7, replacing him with North Carolina coach Mack Brown.

Brown, now in his 13th season in Austin, is credited with revitalizing the program, winning the 2005 national championship and sending the team to a major bowl game every year.

Return to Austin

Farris was the honorary captain at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 18 and got a chance to speak to the current UCLA players before playing then-No. 23 Houston.

Farris told them the story of a team that thought it was much better than their record. He told them how the reward of success was a lot closer than they thought, they could be better than anyone else who stepped on the field with them if they were physical enough, and if they made sure to do all the small things right.

Farris can still recall what it was like when he and his teammates did just that.

“It seemed to all come together in that one game,” he said. “Then we were able to ride the momentum from that one game.”

As the 2010 UCLA football team prepares to return to the UT campus once again, no one is expecting a repeat performance, but some similarities between the two games are worth noting.

This year’s Bruins also started out the season 0-2, as did the 1997 team. Hicks thinks there might be a hidden blessing in there.

“It’s really how UCLA works,” he said. “It seems like all their really successful teams start out 0-1 or 0-2.”

In 1993, Hicks’ freshman season, the Bruins were 0-2 before winning seven straight, enough to grant them a Rose Bowl appearance.

And the 1983 UCLA team started out with three losses and a tie before winning all but one of their remaining games, including a 45-9 Rose Bowl victory that saw two touchdowns by a pass-catch tandem of young Bruins Rick Neuheisel and Karl Dorrell.

Now the skipper of the school’s latest voyage back to Austin, Neuheisel last visited Texas Memorial Stadium as the head coach for Colorado.

“They’ve got a great tradition there,” Neuheisel said recalling his experience playing at Texas. “When you go there it’s fun, just like when you go to any of the major venues in the country.

It’s one of those environments that you will remember for a long time.”

When asked if he remembered the score of that game, he paused for a second.

“I want to say 47 to 30,” he said.

Of course, he was right. Something about those games stick with you. Both Farris and Hicks extended their football careers to the professional ranks, but that one game, that one day, still gives them a unique kind of satisfaction.

“It was a special day on every level,” Hicks said.

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