UCLA Football: An Ode to Nebraska


On December 26 UCLA Football will face off against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Foster Farms Bowl. While I share in the frustration that the Pac-12 bowl tie-ins couldn’t net the Bruins any better than a 5-7 opponent, I’m still very happy with this specific match up. Nebraska is a storied program with whom UCLA has developed somewhat of a special relationship.

UCLA vs. Nebraska, 2013

On September 15, 2013, UCLA went to Lincoln for the return leg of a home-and-home series against Nebraska. I had toyed with the idea of making the trip for this game, but it ultimately didn’t work out. I wish I had, as reports from UCLA fans that went universally praised the hospitality and friendliness of the Husker faithful. This is consistent with opinions from around the college football world (outside of Boulder, perhaps), that Nebraska has some of the best fans and best game atmospheres around. It’s no wonder that Nebraska has sold out Memorial Stadium every game since midway through the 1962 season.

The game was shrouded in tragedy after the accidental death of freshman walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale the week prior. It was a nice gesture that Nebraska offered to honor Pasquale in the stadium before the game. What I didn’t know at the time was that the method they chose (releasing blue and yellow balloons before kickoff) was no empty gesture of sympathy, but a repurposing of a proud tradition of Husker football. Since the 1940s, the student section has released red balloons every home game after the Huskers score their first touchdown. They took that tradition and invited us to be a part of it by dedicating it to Pasquale and to the grieving Bruins. This was a touching gesture that has forever secured a favored place for Nebraska in the hearts of UCLA fans.

Walk On

One thing about Pasquale stuck out and struck a chord with Nebraska fans: his status as a walk-on. Since 1973, Nebraska has run one of the nation’s largest and most prominent walk-on programs, a fact of which their fans are very proud. Players from throughout the state – particularly the rural areas that play five- or seven-man football and don’t attract scouts or recruiters – are encouraged to enroll in the university and given the chance to walk on to the football team.

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Nebraska routinely carries some of the largest rosters in the country – the 1995 national championship team carried 141 players – comprised in large part of walk-on players. As the coaches value the role those kids play from scout teams to community outreach, the walk-on players are afforded the same training access and academic support privileges as scholarship players. Most will never see the field in a game situation, but over the years six have become All-Americans and 29 have played in the NFL.

Nick Pasquale’s status as a walk-on did not diminish, and may have enhanced, the respect given to him by Nebraska fans. They understood that he was no less a part of the team than, say, Brett Hundley or Anthony Barr.

An Even Series

UCLA and Nebraska are tied up at six wins apiece in the all-time series between the two schools. Aside from the 2013 game, four other meetings feature prominently:

1972 – After two straight national titles, expectations were high that Bob Devaney‘s Husker squad could win its third in a row. Riding a 32-game unbeaten streak, Nebraska opened the season, however, with a stunning 20-17 loss at unranked UCLA. Nebraska would lose only once more, to then-#4 Oklahoma, en route to a #4 finish and victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.

Sep 13, 2014; Fresno, CA, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Kenny Bell (80) runs with the ball after making a catch against the Fresno State Bulldogs in the second quarter at Bulldog Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

1988 – No. 5 UCLA met #2 Nebraska in the Rose Bowl early in the season, and the Bruins rolled 41-28. The Bruins would go on to reach #1 the only time in Terry Donahue‘s career before falling to Washington State and then again to #2 USC. UCLA finished the season with a win over #8 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and a #6 ranking.

1993 – Coming off a disappointing loss in the opener to Cal, unranked UCLA hosted #6 Nebraska. Sophomore quarterback Tommie Frazier led the Huskers to a 14-13 victory over the Bruins’ vaunted pass defense. UCLA, energized by coming within a point of upsetting a top ranked team, reeled off seven wins and an additional one over USC to reach the Rose Bowl for the first time in seven years. Nebraska rode the momentum of this game to an undefeated season and an Orange Bowl berth against top ranked, eventual champion Florida State.

2012 – Unranked UCLA hosted #16 Nebraska in Pasadena in the home opener of the first season under new coach Jim Mora. Clinging to a two-point lead in the final minutes, UCLA intercepted Nebraska and returned it deep into Husker territory, setting up a final touchdown to put the game out of reach with in the final minutes. The win heralded the rebirth of UCLA football after almost a decade of disappointment and mediocrity. It served to energize the Bruin fans and show that the program was back on the right track.

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So forget that the Foster Farms Bowl is just a dressed up version of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl née Emerald Nut Bowl. Forget that our opponent is a 5-7 team that needed an academic waiver to earn bowl eligibility due to a shortage of .500-or-better teams. Forget the dreams of Roses we cherished two short weeks ago.

Instead, embrace the chance to write another chapter in one of the best non-conference relationships that UCLA Football has going. Here’s to the Huskers, and that our continued friendship may survive the beating our boys will bring them on December 26!