The downtrodden USC Trojans and surprisingly upstart UCLA Bruins seemed to be headed in opposite directions before they faced each other on Saturday. Southern Cal had endured two of the most embarrassing losses in the history of the university to Oregon and Stanford in the previous three weeks.
Meanwhile, UCLA was riding a three-game winning streak as they headed into Saturday’s much-anticipated matchup at the Coliseum.
The Bruins, as well as their fanbase had known that, if there was ever a year for an upset over the hated Men of Troy, 2009 is it.
In a topsy-turvy college football season where surprising programs like TCU and Cincinnati round out the top-five teams in the AP rankings, leave it to a rivalry game to reinstate a sense of predictability to our lives.
Having won 10 of their 11 previous matchups, USC defeated UCLA 28-7 in the 79th installment of this heated crosstown affair. While the game unto itself was mostly forgettable, it was more competitive than most Trojan fans would like to admit.
Southern Cal didn’t score any offensive points until the third quarter, when DB Will Harris intercepted a Kevin Prince pass that set the Trojans up at the Bruin 29-yard line.
In spite of great field position, USC still required seven plays to drive less than 30 yards for pay-dirt. In fact, the outcome of this game was still in doubt until Southern Cal made the score 21-7 on a second touchdown run by bruising tailback Allen Bradford, who replaced an injured Joe McKnight, with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter.
The defining moments of the battle started with only 44 seconds remaining in the game, and this is the part that will stick with fans of both schools for years to come.
UCLA still had all three times out remaining, and Bruin head coach Rick Neuheisel elected to use their first time out when USC, up two scores with less than a minute left, lined up in a victory formation and opted to take a knee on first down to run out the clock.
Neuheisel courageously demonstrated a never-say-die attitude toward UCLA’s hated rival. This mentality should not be unexpected as Neuheisel continues to set the tone for his program in his second year as the head football coach in Westwood.
USC head coach Pete Carroll merely obliged Neuheisel with quid-pro-quo: If you’re not ready to quit, then neither are we.
QB Matt Barkley’s ensuing 48-yard play-action touchdown bomb to All-Conference wideout Damian Williams, the play that has Bruin fans and various pundits in an uproar, was downplayed by both coaches after the game.
"You're either competing or you're not," USC coach Pete Carroll said in response to the controversial play call.
"Our job is to cover, and they have every right to throw deep," Neuheisel said. "People can make their own conclusions. Our job is to stop the play. ... I don't blame them for doing it."
If the coaches are okay with the play call, then fans should be, too. Based on the fact that the game wasn’t a blowout, the late TD to Williams wasn’t nearly as egregious a play call as Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go for two when Stanford already led USC 48-21 two weeks ago.
The notion of hanging a 50-spot on the Trojans was purely vanity-driven. Carroll’s decision to go for the jugular was merely gamesmanship after Neuheisel effectively communicated through his use of times out that UCLA wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet.
But the play-call alone wasn’t the most disturbing part of the fourth quarter. This would come soon afterward.
USC’s players on the sidelines showed little to no class was when they collectively moved onto the field to taunt the Bruins after the last touchdown put USC up three scores. The Bruin bench, facing emasculation in addition to defeat, felt they had no choice but to stand up for themselves, and meet the Trojans in the middle of the field to engage in possible fisticuffs.
Only a last-minute intervention by both coaching staffs and abridged post-game handshakes prevented further incident.
While Saturday’s victory will help USC get invited to a tertiary postseason matchup like the Holiday, Poinsettia, or Emerald Bowl, Carroll must reprimand his players for their unsportsmanlike actions after Barkley’s TD pass reflect poorly upon the university.
Or, in many people’s eyes, the team’s egging on of the defeated Bruins simply reinforces USC’s reputation to many as a bastion of arrogance.