Depending on your perspective, a result like UCLA’s 45-44 win over Texas A&M on Sunday night in Pasadena can be viewed as either a comeback or a meltdown.
For UCLA, it was one of the greatest comebacks in football history, as the Bruins erased a 34-point deficit (they trailed 44-10 with 4:08 left in the third quarter) to win by a point behind a fabulous fourth quarter by quarterback Josh Rosen and their defense.
For Texas A&M, it was one of the worst meltdowns in football history, as the Aggies allowed 396 yards on five touchdown drives in the final 19 minutes to lose, a blown lead so severe that only one other team ever has known what it feels like.
Any sort of blown lead like that is going to inspire a ton of angst, no matter the context. For Texas A&M, however, there are many levels of angst here. Under Kevin Sumlin — who entered this season on the hot seat — the Aggies have earned a reputation for in-season collapses. They have finished 8-5 three years in a row despite reaching the top 10 in each of those seasons with starts of 6-0, 5-0 and 5-0. They have especially been strong in opening games, most memorably the 52-28 thrashing of what turned out to be an overrated South Carolina to start the post-Johnny Manziel era in 2014.
On Sunday, they decided to get the collapse over with in one game, rather than wait until November for their fall from grace.
By the numbers, UCLA-Texas A&M was the second-biggest comeback in college football history, joining a list of seven games in which the winning team trailed by 30 points, according to the NCAA record book. Let’s run through them:
7. 1993 California 42, Oregon 41
Deficit overcome: 30
Oregon was still a year away from its breakthrough 1994 run to the Rose Bowl. In 1993, it limped to a 5-6 losing record thanks in part to a mammoth comeback by a California team that started the season 5-0 and was ranked No. 17. The Ducks led the Golden Bears 30-0, but Cal rallied back and went ahead on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Dave Barr to Iheanyi Uwaezuoke with 1:17 to play, followed by a two-point conversion for the win.
3. 2015 TCU 47, Oregon 41
Deficit overcome: 31
A wild Alamo Bowl featured an all-time great comeback and three overtimes. With TCU QB Trevone Boykin suspended, Oregon raced out to a 31-0 halftime lead. But Ducks QB Vernon Adams left the game with an injury, and Bram Kohlhausen led the Horned Frogs back. The Horned Frogs scored 31 straight points, including Jaden Oberkrom’s 22-yard field goal with 19 seconds left to force overtime. The teams traded touchdowns in the first OT and field goals in the second. In the third, Kohlhausen scored on an eight-yard run, and the TCU defense came up with a fourth-down stop for the win.
3. 2006 Texas Tech 44, Minnesota 41
Deficit overcome: 31
Joel Monroe hit a 20-yard field goal to give Minnesota a 38-7 lead over Texas Tech with 7:47 left in the Insight Bowl. Of course, Mike Leach’s Red Raiders offenses were always capable of scoring a ton of points in a hurry, and that’s exactly what happened. The Red Raiders scored four touchdowns, then got a 52-yard field goal from Alex Trlica as time expired in regulation to force OT. Minnesota settled for an OT field goal, and Shannon Woods scored Texas Tech’s winning touchdown. Minnesota fired coach Glen Mason two days later.
3. 1989 Ohio State 41, Minnesota 37
Deficit overcome: 31
Minnesota and Oregon do not fare well on this list. This was a memorable moment for Ohio State early in the tenure of John Cooper, amid an otherwise forgettable 8-4 season. Predictably, it was a sloppy game early, with Minnesota taking advantage of Buckeyes mistakes to build a 31-0 lead early in the second quarter. Ohio State got its scoring started with a fourth-down TD late in the first half, and the comeback began. Led by QB Greg Frey, the Buckeyes climbed all the way back to take a four-point lead, then fended off a Minnesota final drive that got all the way to the 22-yard line.
3. 1984 Maryland 42, Miami 40
Deficit overcome: 31
This came in at No. 59 in our summer countdown of the 100 best college football games ever. Long before he would engineer the NFL’s greatest comeback for the Buffalo Bills, Reich led what was then the biggest college football comeback ever for Maryland. Miami, the defending national champion, led 31-0, but Reich — who had been injured — came off the bench and led the comeback, pushing the Terrapins ahead with 5:29 left on a 68-yard tipped TD pass to Greg Hill. Maryland scored again to go ahead by eight, and in the end it had to stop a Miami two-point conversion to hold on for the win. In its next game, Miami lost to Boston College on Doug Flutie’s classic Hail Mary.
2. 2017 UCLA 45, Texas A&M 44
Deficit overcome: 34
Our full recap of the game can be found here, but like the others on the list, UCLA could seemingly do nothing right for much of the game. After kicking a field goal on its first drive, the Bruins were plagued by fumbles and punts, as they couldn’t protect Josh Rosen and his receivers couldn’t get open. When they finally scored a touchdown with three minutes left in the second quarter, Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams responded with a 61-yard TD run on the Aggies’ next play. It was that kind of night for UCLA, which trailed 44-10 after two third-quarter field goals.
Suddenly, though, UCLA found a spark, as Rosen led the Bruins on five straight touchdown drives covering nearly 400 total yards, all in the last 19 minutes. There were no forced turnovers or big special teams plays, just the defense coming up with stops (and a missed Aggies field goal) and Rosen making fantastic throws and even some lucky throws. The final TD went from Rosen to Jordan Lasley with 43 seconds left, and the Bruins stopped Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond just short of a first down on fourth down to finish off the win.
The comeback even had a familiar feel to it after the Patriots’ Super Bowl win in February:
Epic comebacks start at 2:06 in the 3rd:
Super Bowl LI: Falcons led Patriots 28-3
Exactly 29 weeks later…
Texas A&M led UCLA 44-10 pic.twitter.com/ZBBKxOUEzt
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 4, 2017
1. 2006 Michigan State 41, Northwestern 38
Deficit overcome: 35
The biggest comeback in college football history came in at No. 98 on our best 100 games ever countdown, a ranking hurt by the fact that neither team was any good: Both the Spartans and Wildcats finished 4-8. They nevertheless made history in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 21, 2006. Northwestern went ahead 38-3 with 9:54 left in the third quarter. Michigan State somehow responded led by quarterback Drew Stanton, plus a blocked punt among the five touchdowns. With the game tied, Michigan State intercepted C.J. Bacher, setting up Brett Swenson’s 28-yard game-winning field goal to give the Spartans the win after trailing by 35.