PASADENA, Calif. “”mdash; Imagine a UCLA team playing up to its potential, at night, in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl, in flashy alternate uniforms. UCLA’s players are absolutely dismantling a squad that the team across town lost to a week prior.
Welcome to UCLA football’s bizarro world, materializing to the shock, awe and delight of 81,673 fans Saturday night in a 66-10 win over Arizona.
Most bizarre of all, but typical of the night, a running back from Dorsey High breaks the all-time career rushing yards record.
In need of just 21 yards to steal Gaston Green’s title as Westwood’s favorite running back, redshirt senior Johnathan Franklin etched his name atop UCLA’s record book by passing Green’s mark of 3,731 career rushing yards with a 37-yard, first-quarter sprint to the end zone to get the party started and give UCLA a 7-0 lead.
If Franklin had been brought in as the next guy in a long line of talented, highly recruited running backs, that would be one thing. But Franklin was an afterthought, a three-star recruit and one of four running backs in coach Karl Dorrell’s 2008 recruiting class. That was three coaches ago.
After Franklin’s record-setting run, UCLA coach Jim Mora did the right thing and called a timeout to honor his accomplishment. He was mobbed by his teammates, whom he thanked first before pointing to the sky.
“It’s a great feeling, but all praises go to my teammates,” Franklin said. “They open up the big holes, I just run through them.”
Franklin owes one of his biggest thank-yous to former coach Rick Neuheisel, who committed to the run-heavy pistol offense in 2010. As the Bruins featured back, this meant lots of yards for “Jetski” Franklin.
I placed a call to Neuheisel to get his thoughts on Franklin’s feat and Rick reminded me that Dorrell’s staff thought so little of Franklin as a running back, they were ready to make him a safety. Now, Neuheisel can’t even recall the names of transfers Aundre Dean and Milton Knox, both of whom were rated as better than Franklin by recruiting experts.
“It took me about four minutes to say, ‘That’s the best running back,’” Neuheisel said. “It wasn’t hard to see.”
Green’s story is nice, but everyone saw it coming. Green came to UCLA as a big-time recruit, and after starting as a freshman in the 1985 Fiesta Bowl, Green drove Donahue’s team to 27 wins over the next three years.
When Green took the title from its previous owner, Freeman McNeil, in a 49-0 win at Stanford, Donahue spent the post-game meeting with the team talking up Green but when he went to give him the game ball, Green was still flirting with the media.
“I got on him pretty hard about that and told him, ‘Hey man, you missed one of my best presentations ever,’” Donahue said. “He just laughed.”
It’s almost as if Green ““ a hometown kid who went on to spend his NFL career with the Rams ““ was destined to break the record.
Franklin was anything but.
Lest anyone forget, Donahue is quick to remind us that Franklin broke the record on “very average teams.” Green was 36-10-2 at UCLA. As of Saturday, Franklin is 24-24 as a Bruin.
Green wasn’t at Saturday’s game. He was watching from his home in Atlanta and sent Franklin a congratulatory video message that was shown to the crowd after Franklin’s touchdown. He said he plans to call Franklin sometime this week.
“Anytime you have somebody like that, you know any record that you may have is going to be in jeopardy of being broken,” Green said. “He’s a great running back, so it’s an honor to know that somebody like Johnathan is breaking the record.”
The backs went about breaking the record in vastly different ways, but on bizarro night at the Rose Bowl ““ with UCLA now in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South division ““ it only makes sense that the most unlikely player would secure one of the football program’s highest honors.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Green said.
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