UCLA tailback Eric Ball high-stepped into the New Year's night, leaving the Iowa Hawkeyes gagging in the dust of another failed dream.
A freshman, soon to be a freshman of fable, Ball rushed for 227 yards and a modern-era record-tying four touchdowns as the No. 13 Bruins defeated the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes, 45-28, before 103,292 in the 72nd Rose Bowl.
Ball averaged a remarkable 10.3 yards per carry the 22 times his number was called. He was named the game's most valuable player after he rushed for three scores in the first half (40 yards, 30 yards and six yards) and a 33-yarder that gave the Bruins a 38-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
And to think, this is the same guy who lost a fumble on the one-yard line when the Bruins were driving for a game-winning touchdown in a 17-14 loss to Southern California that almost cost UCLA the Pacific-10 championship and this Rose Bowl appearance.
"I wasn't going to let one man stop me today," Ball said.
Iowa Coach Hayden Fry said, "I couldn't tell Ball from the rest of them. They all ran by us."
Pity the poor Hawkeyes (10-2). Their defense was strafed for more points than it ever had given up in a game this season (31 was the previous high) and their best running back, senior Ronnie Harmon, lost four fumbles in the first half alone when UCLA built a 24-10 lead.
Harmon had fumbled just once all season. His four lost fumbles set an individual Rose Bowl record and tied a team record. Two of the bobbles led directly to 10 UCLA points and a third was lost at the UCLA five-yard line.
"Incredible," said Fry. And Harmon, asked in a postgame press conference if he felt responsible for the loss, responded, "Maybe I should. What do you think?
"They did a good job of stripping the ball. It was probably the worst day I had in my four years at Iowa."
At least Iowa quarterback Chuck Long, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, finished his college career with a cool, nearly elegant performance. Although he was sacked five times, Long completed 29 of 37 passes for 319 yards and led the Hawkeyes to within a touchdown early in the third quarter before the Bruins stole away.
Long said afterward, "It's not like we went out and choked. Turnovers hurt a team and we had some turnovers.
"It was better to be out here than to do nothing," he said. "Nothing we can do about it now."
The Bruins ended 9-2-1 with a victory so decisive that Fry, who insisted up until today's opening kickoff that his team deserved consideration for the national title, said that "if UCLA always played like they did tonight, they'd be national champion."
The most shocking thing of all may be that the Bruins won with their second-string quarterback (Matt Stevens) playing all but the final minute and with their second-string tailback (Ball) becoming the main man when starter Gaston Green was sidelined with a pulled hamstring in the second quarter.
Stevens, playing because usual starter David Norrie was sidelined for all but the closing minute with a thigh injury, completed 16 of 26 for 189 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for a touchdown.
Stevens' most important moment certainly came early in the third quarter. Iowa had just driven to a touchdown, closing to 24-17.
That's when Stevens directed the Bruins on a 14-play, 73-yard momentum-busting drive that he finished with a 12-yard scoring pass to receiver Mark Sherrard. It was 31-17, Bruins. Game over.
"I was real nervous at the start of the game," Stevens admitted. "You see that rose in the middle of the field and it makes you think.
"The team really rallied around me."
"Matt Stevens' performance was absolutely incredible," said UCLA Coach Terry Donahue, whose Bruins have won four consecutive New Year's Day bowl games, including three Rose Bowls.
Maybe in years to come the Big Ten ought to send its champion to the Freedom Bowl. Or maybe just send them to see the Rose Parade. Sending them to the Rose Bowl game has been the same as sending them to the gallows: the Pacific-10 Conference has won five straight, 11 of the last 12 and 15 of the last 17 Rose Bowls.
"I believe college football goes in cycles," Donahue said. "The Pac-10 is in this cycle. The Big Ten had theirs."
Worse yet for Iowa, the Bruins stole Ball from right out of the heart of Big Ten country: Ypsilanti, Mich. He grew up two miles from Bo Schembechler's office.
"When I was growing up," said Ball, "I used to dream of the Rose Bowl.
"I was recruited by Notre Dame, Nebraska and Michigan," Ball said. "I was tired of playing in the cold. I like California . . . It was my dream (as a boy) to play in the Rose Bowl for Michigan."
Ball's fourth scoring run matched the mark of four set by Southern California's Sam Cunningham against Ohio State in 1973.
"Eric Ball was certainly distraught after fumbling against USC. He said it hurt him," Donahue said, "but he came back and away he went."
The truth is, Ball became only the second freshman ever to win the Rose Bowl's MVP award. The other was the University of Washington's running back, Jacque Robinson, who tortured these same Hawkeyes four years ago. Iowa had hoped for vindication in this game from that 28-0 humiliation.
Harmon's first fumble was devastating to such ideas, coming only one play after UCLA deep snapper Scott Franklin hiked the ball through the raised arms of punter Ted Henderson and Iowa took over at the UCLA five. Harmon's bobble was then recovered at the seven by Bruins defensive back Maurice Turner.
Fry was asked if maybe he should have let his players have more fun prior to the game, a little more night life, a little more sightseeing. He said, "Do you realize what the score would have been if they'd had fun, out honky-tonkin'?"