As Trojan fans watched the clock tick down on a season of underachieving, as a rain soaked Jim Mora cringed while doused in celebratory, light blue Gatorade, they, like the players that left the Rose Bowl bearing the burden of unfulfilled expectations, began their winter of despair.
Just a season ago, these same fans of Troy wondered, after a 50-point dismantling of the Bruins at the Coliseum, what the outcome of the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game would have been had they participated. UCLA, falling to Oregon 49-31, played in that game by default, they might have mused, a mere placeholder because of NCAA restrictions.
The horizon seemed bright as restrictions would soon be lifted and the fortunes of returning a senior quarterback and an explosive offense would remedy the pain of missing out on the big games for the past few years. The patience and the perseverance would pay off, next year. It was the best of times.
UCLA, the other tango partner of the rivalry, also bided their time. Quarterback Brett Hundley represented the future last season, but a knee injury and redshirt halted his anticipated potential. He had to be patient.
The Bruins also brought back Johnathan Franklin, a bruising senior tailback that amassed 2100 yards over the past two seasons. Franklin, like his teammates, remembered the USC rout. They knew their presence in the title game vs. Oregon was contested, maybe even controversial. As LaMichael James dodged and darted for 219 yards and 3 touchdowns, the Bruins felt the loss and the loss of their coach, more than any team. They weren’t even supposed to be there, according to the chatter. Yet, they remained focused on redemption.
“Beating ‘SC is not a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that.”
– Red Saunders, Hall of Fame UCLA Coach
On Saturday’s match up for all the Pac-12 South marbles, expected to be a track meet, the Trojans obliged by opening their offensive campaign in a trips formation with Barkley looking to immediately involve Heisman hopeful, Marqise Lee. Clearly a sound strategy since the dynamic sophomore changes games as quickly as he hops and cuts out of crowds for huge gains. The Bruins waited in double coverage and Aaron Hester easily picked off the pass. From there, this rout was on. A shortened field allowed the Bruins to operate their up-tempo offense with alacrity, throwing quick passes that evoked a roughing penalty and a chance for Hundley to dive into the end zone for the first of two rushing TDs.
USC seemed like they learned from their mistake and immediately handed the ball to Curtis McNeal, a senior who had never lost to UCLA in his career, for 34-yards straight up the middle of the two-deep defense, a potential weakness the Trojans could exploit. But, USC went back to the air and punted the ball away.
UCLA didn’t stray from their expected game plan of ball control, keeping the suddenly stagnant USC offense on the sideline. The Trojan defense nearly caught Hundley for a safety and held the Bruins to a FG, despite an 18 play, 7 minute and 42 second drive for 84 yards. USC, feeling the pressure to get the ball to Lee, lined him up in the backfield and he fumbled. The Bruins quickly capitalized on another shortened field with a high arching pass to TE Joseph Fauria, a play they would lean on repeatedly, sprinting to a 17-0 lead with two TDs off of two turnovers to end the first quarter.
The growing deficit forced the Trojans into a failed attempt to extend the next drive on a 4th and 3. Their first four possessions ended in an interception, punt, fumble, and now downs. UCLA took the ball and marched 74 yards ending with a Franklin jog through the defense for a TD and a 24-0 lead. The game appeared to be over.
“Here’s to the men who carry the ball, to them go glory and fame; but here’s to the men who play up front, to the men who win the game.”
– Grantland Rice, 20th Century Sportswriter
Yet, USC midway through the 2nd quarter flipped the proverbial switch and resumed their attack on the middle of the two deep defense. Barkley suddenly had time to find his receivers, including freshman Nelson Agholor for a 33-yard TD. The defense forced a punt and Barkley used a quick two-yard toss to tight end Randall Telfer to close the half only down ten, 24-14.
The rain poured to open the 3rd quarter and the ball slipped away from the Bruins on their opening possession and into the end zone. George Uko fell on the ball and the momentum seemed poised to swing completely to the Trojans. A missed extra point meant a 24-20 deficit, but three unanswered scores made the faithful hopeful.
Unfortunately, this prizefight belonged to the Bruins, responding to USC’s haymakers with Johnathan Franklin jabs and Joseph Fauria flurries to keep the drive alive. They stretched the lead to 31-20. Marqise Lee finally broke the plane of the goal line in the 4th quarter, and after a Robert Woods 2-point conversion, the Trojans were within a field goal at 31-28.
It was not meant to be. Johnathan Franklin capped off his 171-yard, 2 TD performance with a 29-yard dagger, replacing the traditional USC sword stab at midfield before the game, and solidified the W.
Suddenly, it was the worst of times. Barkley took a shot from Anthony Barr that might have separated his shoulder and ended his season. A blocked FG by Sheldon Price, the man tasked with shadowing Lee most of the game, added insult to the possible injury. USC left Pasadena with lots of questions about their game plan, their defense, and the health of their quarterback wearing a sling on his throwing arm. Their only solace remains another chance at redemption in a season that was supposed to define it – a chance to knock off now #1 Notre Dame from the top of the mountain of the BCS.