Think of UCLA's season so far as one long U-turn. After dropping their first two games, the Bruins have won five straight and are thinking Rose Bowl. Think of junior wide receiver J.J. Stokes as the guy who gave the steering wheel a jerk. This fall Stokes has caught 44 passes, 13 for touchdowns. Eleven of those TDs have come in the Bruins' last four games.
Two days before UCLA's most recent victory, a 20-17 squeaker over Oregon State in Corvallis last Saturday, Stokes showed up for an interview with a video-cassette under his arm. What's that, he was asked, footage of the Beavers' defense? Doing a little homework?
Turned out Stokes was mailing the tape to his oldest brother, Jon, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who is now a chef at the four-star Hotel des Alpes in Lucerne, Switzerland. It was a reel of J.J.'s best catches of the season. Jon would see that Little Brother has his own spècialitè: flame-broiled cornerback.
Still, the Bruins barely had enough gas to cook the Beavers. "We played like——and still pulled it out," said UCLA quarterback Wayne Cook. "Maybe that's a good sign. We used to lose the close ones." The Bruins, who dropped their opener to Cal by two points and their second game to Nebraska by one, hadn't been in a close game since securing their first victory, by three points over Stanford. Next they walloped San Diego State 52-13 and handed BYU its worst defeat ever, 68-14. A week later, after spotting Washington 15 first-quarter points, the Bruins rallied to win 39-25.
Stokes stoked that comeback by reeling in a seemingly innocuous five-yard hitch pass late in the first quarter. From a sprint he came to a dead stop, spun to the outside and left Husky cornerback Reggie Reser only air to embrace. Stokes went 95 yards for a touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage in Bruin history and, to UCLA coach Terry Donahue, one of the most welcome. "After J.J. broke that run, our players saw that, Oh, we can score on these guys. There was some kind of positive karma, a release of tension," said Donahue, a Southern California native, in case you couldn't tell.
Washington insisted on single coverage against Stokes, and it paid for this hubris: Stokes scorched the Huskies for 10 receptions, of which four went for touchdowns. Husky linebacker Jamal Fountaine said of Stokes, "I want to be his agent."
At 6'4", Stokes towers over virtually all defensive backs. After a catch he is liable to abuse defenders by 1) losing them with one of his arsenal of dekes, 2) keeping them at bay with a stiff-arm or 3) welcoming them aboard as passengers and dragging them up the field. Until this year no Bruin wideout—not Mike Sherrard or Flipper Anderson or any of the other dozen or so wide receivers UCLA has sent to the NFL—had caught more than 11 TD passes in a season. Stokes has a baker's dozen with four games still to play.
After languishing for 1½ seasons behind Sean LaChapelle, now a Los Angeles Ram, Stokes became a starter last year when LaChapelle cracked a rib against Arizona in midseason. Initially, Stokes was good but not great. "He never took it on himself to do anything extra," says Bruin receivers coach Rick Neuheisel, who put in a call to J.J.'s father, John, who invited Neuheisel to kick his son's butt.
Thus challenged, Stokes finished strong. He made 10 catches against Oregon and sprinted into Bruin football lore a week later. In the season finale against USC, Stokes had 192 receiving yards and two touchdown catches in the fourth quarter. All told, he finished with three TD receptions and 263 receiving yards. On his game-winning touchdown, Stokes went 90 yards, carrying a Trojan safety the last 10. His heroics helped salvage the season for the Bruins, who ended up 6-5, and took much pressure off Donahue.
That pressure returned with this season's 0-2 start. After the loss to Nebraska, a tense Donahue declared, "We are not a bunch of ragamuffins!"
Oh, how the mighty had fallen—or so it seemed. From 1982 to '88, Troy Aikman's senior year, Donahue won seven straight bowl games, including three Rose Bowls. In the next four seasons his record was 23-21-1, and UCLA went to only one postseason game, the venerable John Hancock Bowl. Donahue, once the best in the Pac-10 at attracting talent from all over the country, saw the flow of out-of-state players slow to a trickle. Bruin coaches say that the L.A. riots of May 1992 adversely affected this year's recruiting class, only two members of which aren't from California.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Pac-10 closed the gap. The 15th-ranked Bruins' next opponent, Arizona, the only Pac-10 team never to have been to the Rose Bowl, is 7-0 and ranked seventh. UCLA avoided being tied by Oregon State—allegedly the conference's patsy—when Beaver kicker Brooke Knight's 32-yard field goal attempt with 4:22 to go hooked left by less than a foot.
The Beavers pressed Cook, who had thrown 12 touchdown passes in the previous four games, and he completed only 15 of 31 on the day. Part of the trouble was that Cook had relied too much on Stokes and neglected other capable receivers, like Kevin Jordan and Mike Nguyen. Double-covered most of the game, Stokes had a quiet eight-catch, one-touchdown day, if such a day can be called quiet.
Neuheisel seemed delighted with the victory. "We came out flat and won," he said. "Championship teams win games like these."
Donahue was reserved. "We've got four games to go," he said. "It's too early to be talking about championships."
Let's see if we have this straight. Donahue's message last Saturday: Don't call us champions. His message five weeks ago: Don't call us ragamuffins.
On Saturday the 6'4" Stokes was head and shoulders above Oregon State's secondary.