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The case for 2019 UCLA-Wazzu as college football’s greatest comeback ever

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Go beyond just total deficit and look at other factors as well.

UCLA vs. Washington State 2019 James Snook-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

UCLA came back from 32 down to beat Washington State in Week 4 of 2019. The Bruins flipped a 49-17 deficit well after halftime into a 67-63 winner.

Anyone who reads a stat sheet could immediately tell it was one of a weird sport’s weirdest games ever. But no matter how historically absurd you think UCLA’s comeback was, it only gets more absurd as you peel back layers.

1. Going strictly by size of deficit, this was not the biggest comeback in FBS history. But UCLA did its work in less time than the only bigger ones.

The FBS team that’s overcome the biggest deficit is 2006 Michigan State, which went down 35 at Northwestern with 24:54 left in the game.

The Spartans scored the first points of their comeback with 22:03 left, the beginning of a 38-0 run that culminated in a field goal with 13 seconds left.

The 2019 Bruins went down by 32 with only 21:52 left in the game — three minutes after the point when Northwestern took its 35-point lead on MSU. UCLA didn’t score the first points of its comeback until there were 18:48 left, also about three minutes more dramatic than MSU’s schedule.

This is one of many ways in which UCLA increased the difficulty for itself. Later in this post, you’ll see the Bruins never really stopped doing that.

The clock time between the first score of UCLA’s comeback and the time the Bruins took the lead was 11 minutes and 17 seconds, barely half as long as it took Michigan State to move ahead on a field goal.

The other bigger comeback by point value is, amazingly, from the Bruins in 2017. They trailed 44-10 against Texas A&M before scoring 35 unanswered, the last with 43 seconds left:

Here’s an apparent contradiction:

  • The 2017 Bruins had slightly less time when they fell behind by 34 than the 2019 Bruins did when they went down 32. The ‘17 team faced its deficit with 19:08 left and scored its first comeback points with 17:06 left — both a little more dire than 2019 UCLA on paper.
  • The 2017 Bruins scored all their comeback points over 16:23 of clock time, though. That’s five minutes longer than it took the 2019 Bruins to come back from 32 down.

These are both possible because 2019 UCLA didn’t have just one comeback.

2. The 2019 Bruins had to mount a comeback within their comeback.

That 11:17 span in which 2019 UCLA scored to cut its deficit to 49-24 and take the lead with 7:31 left in the game? It actually included 43 Bruin points.

Wazzu scored a touchdown with 10:08 left. At that point, Wazzu’s lead had gotten down to three, until Anthony Gordon’s eighth TD pass of the night (more on that in a bit).

UCLA responded with a 70-yard TD drive that used less than two minutes of clock. Then a recently flailing Bruin defense forced a three-and-out. UCLA’s Kyle Phillips ripped off an excellent punt return to claim the lead:

With 7:31 left, after trailing by 32, UCLA led. But:

3. UCLA also had to mount a POST-COMEBACK COMEBACK.

After that, Wazzu needed just 1:20 to score a counter-go-ahead, Gordon’s ninth touchdown pass of the night. The saddest thing about this game is that Gordon didn’t win.

The Bruins then failed on a fourth down deep inside Wazzu territory and more or less needed to force a fumble on the next snap, which they did. With 1:07 left, the Bruins went ahead for good on a screen from Dorian Thompson-Robinson to Demetric Felton.

The comeback within a comeback and POST-COMEBACK COMEBACK are things 2006 MSU and 2017 UCLA did not have to do, partly because they didn’t have to outscore a peak Mike Leach offense like 2019 UCLA did. Their adversity did not include bonus adversity.

4. Boring TDs fueled the Michigan State comeback. But 2019 UCLA was launching firecrackers.

The 2006 Spartans had a 33-yard punt return TD, but you could fit three of those inside this 100-yarder with at least eight instances of Washington State failing to tackle Felton:

Another came on a 94-yard slant to Felton that had two stiff arms:

2006 Michigan State’s comeback had no other TDs longer than 18 yards. I’m a Big Ten graduate and don’t discriminate against boring football, but Sparty’s comeback was not even in the same stratosphere of entertainment value.

The 2017 Bruins had a 42-yard TD pass, and Rosen’s game-winner to Lashley came on a freaking fake spike after the clock was already stopped, which was awesome.

But this next thing is where 2019 UCLA really sets itself apart.

5. A comeback in which you have to keep trading scores is more fun than one in which each team basically plays one perfect half.

In 2006, Northwestern scored 38 of the first 41. Then MSU scored the last 38. That’s just taking turns.

In 2017, A&M scored 44 of the first 54. Then UCLA scored the last 35. The writers aren’t going to win an Emmy for creativity.

2019 UCLA-Washington State featured:

  • UCLA scoring first to go up 7-0, then going up 10-7,
  • Wazzu scoring 42 of the next 49,
  • UCLA scoring 29 in a row,
  • and multiple lead changes after all that.

If your mission is caping for the 2006 Spartans’ or 2017 Bruins’ defense, you could argue either was better because of raw deficit. But that is not my mission. “Fun” is an important part of “best,” and a see-saw is more fun than one big up and one big down.

So is 50 points in 17:41.

6. Adding to the shock value, UCLA was bad leading up to this comeback, while Washington State was quite good.

A 2-5 Northwestern blowing a big lead to anybody in 2006? It sounds normal, when you put it that way. 2019 UCLA did it against a good team, one that’d been superior to the Bruins for several years.

The Bruins entered 3-12 in Chip Kelly’s tenure. They’d scored exactly 14 points in each of their first three games of 2019.

The #19 Cougars were coming off a top-10 season. Such as it was, they were one of the Pac-12’s best Playoff hopes.

Leach teams eternally have the capacity to play silly games, but there was no reason to expect this. The Cougars were a little more than a quarter away from easily covering the 18-point spread.

7. This comeback also has karmic value, given comments Leach made about UCLA’s home state earlier in the week.

California legislators had recently passed a bill that would eventually let college athletes get paid for their names, images, and likenesses. Someone asked Leach about this at a press conference, and he went on this riff:

The state of California has trouble keeping their streets clean right now. So my thought is that they probably ought to focus on that. That’s just one man’s opinion. I’m sure I’m probably wrong. But at the rate that California’s handling their infrastructure and some of their other problems, I think we’ll see how they do with that before I really think it would be that beneficial for the legislature in California to enter into college football.

Props to UCLA for overcoming both California’s infrastructure and Leach’s 32-point lead. Also, pay the players.

8. UCLA loaded the box score with seemingly impossible details.

They didn’t just give up nine touchdown passes and win. They went three of 11 on third downs and won. They won by only four despite winning the turnover battle six to one and scoring 29 points off takeaways. And so on.

9. A few bowls have had comebacks in 2019 UCLA’s neighborhood, but they fall just short in their own ways.

In 2006’s Insight Bowl, Texas Tech trailed 35-7 at halftime and 38-14 after three before beating Minnesota 44-41 in OT. The 2019 Bruins look at their own 50 points in less than 18 minutes, glance at Tech’s 31 in the final 20 of regulation, and ask, “What took so long?”

The 2015 season’s Alamo Bowl was great. TCU won 47-41 in three overtimes after trailing Oregon 31-0 at halftime. That is awesome, but in this ultra-competitive world of historic comebacks, you get demerits for needing a whole half plus overtime.

10. 2019 UCLA’s comeback is not just FBS’ best ever. It’s Division I’s best.

The FCS record book only tracks deficits overcome in second halves, listing these as the biggest:

  • 1991 Nevada’s 35-point comeback on Weber State, after trailing 49-14 with 27:16 left. Again, that’s a lot more time left than UCLA had.
  • 1986 Morehead State’s 32-point comeback on Wichita State, after trailing 35-3 with 24:03 left. That’s more time, and nobody should pretend 36-35 is as amazing as 67-63.
  • 1993 Montana’s 31-pointer on South Dakota State, after trailing 38-7 with 23:12 left. That’s less work and more time to get it done.

There have been other big ones, such as a weirdly aerial Georgia Southern coming back from 28 down to Western Carolina in 2008. None measures up to 2019 UCLA.

11. Actually, nobody in Division II or III can match these Bruins, either.

The DII record is held by 2011 Bloomsburg. That one’s 35 points, but the Huskies went down by that much with 40 minutes left.

The DIII record is 33, shared by three teams. Two had more than an entire half left, and the other had almost 23 minutes left when it went down 33-0.

12. Oh, and no NFL team has had a comeback quite like this either.

The NFL came closest in the 1992 season’s playoffs, when the Bills put a 32-point comeback on the Oilers and won in overtime before going on to lose whichever number Super Bowl that was for them. It came to be nicknamed either The Comeback or The Choke, depending on your perspective.

Thirty-two is a great comeback. The Bills get extra credit for doing theirs in the 1990s NFL, a league much tamer than the 2010s Pac-12, and in a playoff game. They lose some shine for doing most of their work in the third quarter.

They also take a hit for needing OT, as does whichever team won a Super Bowl in overtime after a comeback of only a scant 25 points.

I don’t mean any more disrespect to the Bills than anyone usually means when talking about the Bills, but give me 2019 UCLA for sheer power.

13. Canada also fails to match 2019 UCLA’s feat.

The all-time CFL record comeback was 27 as of 2018. That was also more of a straight line than UCLA’s, coming after Edmonton trailed Calgary 29-2 in the second quarter in 1975.

14. The most famous high school comeback wasn’t ultimately a full comeback.

I’m not going to continue going through every game ever played, but I’m still calling UCLA-Wazzu the greatest comeback in football history.

Good luck finding better.