Twenty-five years ago today, on Oct. 29, 1988, UCLA was the top-ranked team in the land and their quarterback, future NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, was a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. The Cougars were a pedestrian 4-3 after consecutive losses to the Arizona schools. Oddsmakers pegged the Bruins as 24-point favorites.
When the Cougars took a 34-30 lead on one-yard TD by Swinton midway through the fourth quarter, the Cougar Nation let out a collective cheer that literally could be heard across Pullman and in homes and bars throughout Pacific Northwest. No one, though, could have been more stunned than Bob Griese, calling the color that day for ABC-TV alongside legendary Keith Jackson. Griese had proclaimed the contest a mismatch early in the first half.
When freshman kicker Jason Hanson, who had already booted two long field goals on the day, missed one from 33 yards out with 3:20 left, the crimson worry beads came out in force. The kick would have extended the Cougar lead to seven.
On the ensuing Bruin possession, though, Cougar defensive back Artie Holmes intercepted Aikman. One first down was all the Cougars needed to put the game away.
But Erickson's one-back offensive attack, to that point humming along with more than 400 total yards, went three-and-out. Then UCLA's Darryl Henley brought back a Rob Myers punt 33 yards to the WSU 39 before Chris Moton's TD-saving tackle brought him down.
SEE BOTTOM OF THIS STORY FOR A PHOTO GALLERY FROM THE 1988 NAIL BITER.
As the clock wound under a minute, Aikman found tight end Charles Arbuckle on a seam route for 33 yards, down to the WSU 6. Cougar corner Vernon Todd made the stop.
The Bruins had four shots at finding the end zone against a defense ranked near the bottom of the conference in most every statistical category. The Cougars were tired and undersized.
"They were just so big and fast. The star power was crazy," said Swinton, who started that day in place of injured star Steve Broussard and wound up amassing 127 rushing yards and two TDs on 27 carries. "I think on their defense alone there were a couple guys that ended up having Super Bowl rings. It was just a loaded team."
That WSU even had a chance was remarkable given how it ended the previous season …
WSU WAS AN UNDERWHELMING 3-7-1 in 1987, as cliques of players, some recruited by former coach Jim Walden, others by Erickson, divided the team. It reached the point where it was hard to be around each other, Swinton remembers.
A trip to Tokyo to play Cal in the season finale meant lots of traveling hours together in close proximity. One of the upshots was a fistfight on the team bus.
Swinton, who lives in Seattle and is the offensive coordinator at Garfield High, said the trigger was something simple: a disagreement about what time players were supposed to meet. That was all it took, and Erickson afterward knew the chemistry, the makeup of his program, had to change.
When the team came back for spring ball in 1988, Erickson made team trust a priority and emphasized that each players needed to focus on his job and to take one play at a time, Swinton said.
And so in what has transpired into a certain rite of passage, nearly every player stayed in Pullman that summer to work out, train and put behind them a season that failed to blossom.
"We wanted to do better than the 3-7-1 record we had the year before," said Tim Stallworth, WSU's all-Pac-10 wide receiver. "That's what we did. A lot of guys stayed over the summer and we became a family as a team."
In the process, they began the year expecting to win rather than hoping. For a school perpetually tabbed an underdog by preseason magazines and betting lines, that wasn't easy.
"We had worked hard all summer …But we worked so hard that we weren't ready to quit. That's what Erickson installed in us," Swinton said.
"Something changed in that summer of '88."
BUT THE STAGE WAS NOT SET IN very convincing fashion for the trip to UCLA, because the Cougs had blown an opportunity the week before in Pullman against Arizona State and the week before that at Arizona.
Moreover, Broussard, an All-American, had gone down with an injury in the 31-28 loss to ASU.
"When we lost to the two Arizona schools it just didn't feel real good," said Husby, who was part of what in retrospect was one of the most formidable offensive lines ever at WSU.
"For us to lose a game where we felt like they beat us, that's one thing. But when you lose games where you beat yourself, that's another," added Husby, who lives in Bellevue and works as a cargo operations manager at Alaska Airlines.
Erickson called the ASU loss the lowest point of his coaching career. After shooting to a 4-1 start, the Cougars were staggered.
"We were playing really well and then we came home and lose to ASU that way at the end (a Timm Rosenbach interception in the end zone). It was very disappointing to us," Erickson told Cougfan.com last week. "Nobody expected us to be very good and we cranked out some big wins."
Even with Broussard on the sidelines, the Cougars were dangerous. Rosenbach, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was in the midst of leading the nation in passing efficiency. Stallworth was on his way a 1,000-yard-receiving season, Swinton was going to join Broussard in the 1,000-yard rushing club, and the offensive line was full of honors candidates, including 1989 consensus All-American Mike Utley.
"Offensively we were playing really well," Erickson said. "We were running the football really well. We had a great offensive line. We had some really good backs. Rosie was playing really well. We thought offensively we could play with anybody in the country."
Trailing 20-6 at halftime, Erickson was understated in the locker room, his message simple: The Cougars weren't playing all that poorly.
After all, WSU was moving it on offense, though its only points came when Hanson knocked through field goals of 48 and 51 yards. Again, for the third consecutive week, WSU was squandering opportunities.
"In our minds we were like, 'we worked way too hard to be in this position that we're in,'" Husby said. "Where are our leaders at right now?"
"He got up in the front and really just calmly, calmly started off by saying, ya know, we're moving the ball against these guys," said Husby, recalling the speech ….
‘Defense you gotta stop them. Offense, you gotta score. We're doing good things but we're not finishing it. This is a team we should be beating. We're on national television and people are turning off their TVs right now.'
VERNON TODD: 2 BIG PLAYS AT THE END.
‘You've got one half of football to play for your school, for your pride and this is where it starts.
‘Back in Pullman, painted above our tunnel, is a phrase that says Cougar pride. I'm going to put Cougar pride right above that locker room door.'
Erickson, still in the infancy of a career that would span six decades and take him to Miami a few months later, offered a final means of motivation.
"He got out this white piece of paper and this pen and he wrote "Cougar Pride," Husby said.
'I want everybody touching that on the way out because that's what you're playing for right now,' Erickson said. "We all touched the tape that said Cougar pride, walked out there and played a half of football."
LATE IN THE THIRD QUARTER AGAINST the Bruins, the momentum had shifted behind a pair of Cougar touchdowns via Swinton and Stallworth. The Cougars, after trailing 27-6, were down a single score.
"We believed. I remember that word being said a lot on the sideline," Swinton said.
It was the 81-yard touchdown catch-and-run from Stallworth that spurred them. It came when a coach, quarterback and wide receiver all saw the same pattern.
UCLA's defense was starting to cheat up.
"We had a play where I ran a tailback option. We practiced where if they blitzed we hit it quick," said Stallworth, who was picked by ABC as the Chevrolet Player of the Game.
"I know exactly the play" Erickson said last week. "We were in trips with two wides to one side and the tight end on the other. It was a play that guys use all the time now."
STALLWORTH WAS A SECOND-TEAM ALL-AMERICA CHOICE IN 1988.
"The rest was history. He just took it to the house."
Stallworth, who lives in Kirkland with his wife, Jennifer, knew when he caught it that no one would catch him. The sun-covered Rose Bowl crowd of 51,979 sat stunned as he separated from the UCLA secondary, sprinting toward the end zone.
"As soon as he turned his hips, I cut under him," Stallworth explained.
"I just saw all green."
Hall of Fame college football broadcaster Keith Jackson, a graduate of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, issued the legendary call. The game was tied at 27.
There he goes! Whoahhhhhhhh. I'll say there he goes! Nobody's back there! Touchdown. No flags!
In the closing seconds, when the Bruins marched to the WSU six, trailing by four, college football fans put their Halloween parties on hold.
"I remember on the sideline as well when it got down close to the end of the game and guys were saying 'Believe, believe, believe," Swinton said.
On first down, Aikman threw wide left and incomplete, a receiver barely in the region. Thirty-two seconds left. Cameras panned to Erickson pacing up and down the WSU sideline.
Aikman fired next over the middle to Arbuckle, the UCLA tight end who hauled in four passes for 64 yards. The throw was again incomplete. Holmes, the hero earlier in the fourth quarter with an interception, had jumped in front, this time making a pass deflection. The Bruins were without a timeout.
Third down almost ended the game, as WSU linebacker Bob O'Neal crushed Aikman a moment before releasing the ball. Another incompletion. Aikman, who to that point was 27 of 43 for 325 yards and a touchdown, was rattled, and his final try at the end zone never had a chance.
He dropped back, feet shifting quickly, and followed two pump fakes with an uncertain lob to Bruins receiver David Keating, who stood stagnant in the front corner of the end zone. WSU cornerback Vernon Todd was well-positioned.
Ball deflected. Game over. Cougars win 34-30.
As WSU players and coaches jumped and yelled and threw fists to the sky on the sidelines, the Griese provided the matter-of-fact assessment of Aikman's final prayer.
It had no chance. He wasn't even close to being open.
In the post-game interview, Erickson, who stood arm-in-arm with his dad, one-time WSU assistant coach Pinky Erickson, was all elation. The Cougars had accomplished the improbable.
Last week, Erickson said the win resonated more than the two national championships he won at the University of Miami in 1989 and '91, or any NFL game with the Seahawks or 49ers. It brought national acclaim to a WSU team that hadn't been to a bowl game since 1981. The Cougars didn't lose another game in 1988, finishing 9-3, third in the Pac-10 and ranked No. 16 in the country after beating Houston in the Aloha Bowl.
"The only reason any of those players at the University of Miami knew who the hell I was -- they didn't even know where Pullman was, first of all -- the only reason they even knew what my name was, was because we beat UCLA," Erickson said.
Now a co-offensive coordinator at Utah, Erickson last week opined a succinct reflection, his career – catapulted by that late October win 25 years ago -- in its twilight stage.
"I think you can go through Washington State history, Rose Bowls and all that stuff and I don't know if there ever has been as big of a win as that one."