BLAST FROM THE PAST UCLA'S SINGLE WING TRIED AND TRUE.
There were no face masks and nearly everyone played both sides of the ball.
Even then, the offense was some funky novelty act. Sometimes the fullback was spinning or the tailback was taking the snap before faking handoffs or running. Or even throwing a pass.
It was UCLA's single wing, a ``horse and buggy offense'' as described by newspapers in 1954, but it was the offense the Bruins used to win the only national championship in school history.
Although most of the teams in the country were using the ``T-formation'' offense, UCLA coach Red Sanders relied on a style of play that demanded precision timing and misdirection. It was a deployment of seven linemen, three backs, often lined up diagonally, and a receiver. There was no quarterback, no one under center.
``It's nothing like today,'' said John Peterson, a center and defensive lineman on that 1954 team. ``It was like we were playing two different sports. The traveling team, you had a maximum of 36 players. You played on offense and defense, and you had four coaches out there.''
UCLA finished 9-0, led the country in scoring (367 points) and allowed a national-low 40 points and finished ranked No. 1 by United Press International for the school's only national championship. It is the only time in NCAA history a team has led the country in scoring, and scoring defense, but even that wasn't enough to sway all the voters. Ohio State was selected national champion by the Associated Press.
At the time, the passing game had evolved greatly. Teams like Stanford and Oregon used the passing game, which thrilled fans. But Sanders stuck with the single wing.
The offense was based largely on deception, and timing. The receiver, or wing, would often go in motion. The ball was snapped to either the fullback or one of the running backs, and the ball carrier would hand off, run, or throw a pass. Peterson said UCLA rarely used a quarterback.
``The single wing is a very scientific offense,'' said former Sanders assistant Bill Barnes, who went on to be the Bruins' head coach. ``Your fullback is doing a lot of spinning, you're running a lot and it's usually very deceiving. When teams would come up against the single wing, they had to set up a different defense. It's a very deceptive offense.''
In UCLA's diagonal backfield alignment, left halfback Primo Villanueva was the catalyst. He was second on the Bruins with 486 yards rushing and also led the team with 400 yards passing and five touchdowns. His leading receiver, Rommie Loudd, had 13 catches for 157 yards.
Villanueva, who replaced 1953 All-American Paul Cameron, had plenty of help. Right halfback Jim Decker, who averaged 10.8 yards per carry, had a team-leading 508 yards rushing. The fullback would sometimes get the snap, spin one way and fake a handoff only to run. Bruins fullback Bob Davenport did it wonderfully, running for 479 yards and a team-leading 11 touchdowns.
``Other teams were physically stronger than us, and when that happens, you've got to throw the ball some,'' Barnes said. ``We threw the ball, but if you have a great kicking game, you can just kick the ball, kick the ball, kick the ball and just hope for a break.''
Defensively, the changes from today's game weren't as drastic. The Bruins allowed 40 points in the season, 20 of which came against Washington.
The Bruins made national headlines when, as the fourth-ranked team, they defeated consensus defending national champion Maryland 12-7 on Oct. 1 at the Coliseum.
But UCLA's finest moment came during a dominant defensive game that may never be duplicated. Stinging from the loss the previous season, the Bruins intercepted Indians quarterback John Brodie eight times, which is still an NCAA record, in a 72-0 victory.
Bruins lineman Sam Boghosian said that win was set up a year earlier by Sanders, a master motivator. UCLA, 8-2 in 1953, lost at Stanford 21-20. Sanders was furious.
When it came time to play Stanford a year later at the Coliseum, Sanders again went to an unorthodox mode of motivation to get the Bruins ready.
``We get in the locker room in the Coliseum and go out there for pre- game warmup and we come back in and wait for Red to come back in and talk to us,'' Boghosian said. ``We're waiting for him, waiting for him, and we don't see him. All of a sudden the official comes in and gives us a two-minute warning, and no Red.
``The official comes back again with like 30 seconds left, and says, if you guys don't get out here, I'm going to have to penalize you. With that, Red steps in, makes some comments, which I can't repeat, and we went out there and beat them 72-0.''
The Bruins rolled from there, beating Oregon State, Cal, Oregon and USC by a combined 163-6, but missed out on a chance to secure an outright national championship because of a controversial rule prohibiting teams from playing in back-to-back Rose Bowls.
UCLA lost to Michigan State 28-20 on Jan. 1, 1954, a disappointing end to an otherwise impressive season. But the game meant much more to the 1954 season. Even though UCLA won the Pacific Coast Conference and was undefeated, it was ineligible for the game and cost college football a marquee matchup since Ohio State was the Big 10 representative.
USC went as the PCC representative, and lost to the Buckeyes 20-7.
``It was very disappointing because Ohio State was very good,'' Boghosian said. ``It would have been a great settler for one of us to be the national champion.''
Brian Dohn, (818) 713-3607