Rivalry games don’t always have to be pretty to be memorable. Sometimes it is about which team can overcome its mistakes to outlast the other team. Saturday at the Rose Bowl, USC did a far better job overcoming its mistakes and taking advantage of UCLA’s as the Trojans hold off the Bruins 43-38 . The Trojans outscored UCLA 20-3 in the fourth quarter to solidify the comeback having been down 21-10 at the half.
Trojans Hold Off The Bruins 43-38
The Trojans had already won the Pac 12 South title before the game started, thanks to Colorado’s loss to Utah earlier in the day. With a win next week, they have an outside chance to represent the conference in the college football playoffs.
The Bruins fall to 3-3 after an inexcusable loss. They will play one more game next week but are no longer guaranteed a winning record like they would have been had they won Saturday night. Head coach Chip Kelly talks about the turnovers and self inflicted wounds being related to winning percentages. The Bruins had plenty of the self-inflicted issues Saturday.
The stats will show they played well and indeed, they led most of the game. But give a team like USC enough chances, and they will take advantage sooner or later. The Bruins could not maintain the early momentum and their second half collapse doomed them.
UCLA struck first. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson hit receiver Ethan Fernea in the flat at the USC 33-yard line. Fernea outran the USC secondary to the end zone for a 7-0 UCLA first quarter lead.
Early in the second quarter the Bruins got help from Trojans defensive back Olijah Griffen with an unsportsmanlike penalty for 15 yards. That moved the ball to the USC 21-yard line. From there, Thompson-Robinson found running back Demetric Felton in the flat. Felton ran through the arm tackle of Isaiah Pola Mao on his way into the end zone for the 14-0 lead.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis started slowly. But after torching UCLA for more than 500 yards last year it was only a matter of time before he started having his impact. After completing a 14-yard pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown, he found Drake London over the middle. London broke six tackles by UCLA linebackers and defensive backs on his way into the end zone for the Trojans touchdown to put the score at 14-7.
Parker Lewis added a 42-yard field goal to make it 14-10 UCLA.
UCLA Lead Grows
UCLA extended its lead to 21-10 just before the half. On third and goal from the USC 12, Thompson-Robinson hit Felton in the flat along the left side. Felton juked Joshua Jackson to the ground and was in the end zone for the 21-10 lead. The drive covered 75 yards in only 3:06 and Thompson-Robinson moved the team with efficiency. He was 14-16 throwing in the first half for 129 yards and three touchdowns with one interception that came off a tipped pass. The passing game was short and quick and effective if not spectacular.
Slovis was 15 of 23 in the half for 173 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. His yards were coming off the inexplicable cushion the defense was giving the USC receivers. He was not being forced out of the pocket by the UCLA defense, as he was often in a three step drop from the shotgun and getting a quick release on his passes.
The Bruins came out sharp in the second half. Felton picked up a 40-yard run on the first drive of the third quarter. Thompson-Robinson connected with Kyle Philips for nine yards. And then Brittain Brown finished it off, running through missed tackles for a nine-yard touchdown run. The Bruins were up 28-10 and had to be feeling confident. And then the collapse started.
The USC Comeback
With Slovis getting so much cushion from the UCLA defensive backs he was able to peck his way down field. Picking up short 10-11 gains was going to eventually open it up downfield. He eventually found Tyler Vaughns for a 38-yard diving catch in the end zone and the UCLA lead was down to 28-17.
The Bruins had no response. They went five plays for 20 yards but losing yards on two running plays forced them into a punt. Luke Akers has been exceedingly slow on his kicking process throughout the season and tonight it was costly. The offensive line could not hold off the rush. Akers was never going to be able to get the kickoff, so he took off running. He wound up losing 12 yards and fumbling. USC recovered the fumble, but they would have had the ball on the loss of downs anyway at the UCLA 32.
Slovis picked his way through in little pieces again. He found St. Brown for three yards. Then it was Vaughns for seven. Eventually he completed the touchdown pass to St. Brown for three yards. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but after being up by 18 and cruising, the Bruins were now up by only five and on their heels.
UCLA Offense Limited
The USC defense was much more aggressive as well. On the next UCLA series, Thompson-Robinson was sacked for a three-yard loss. And on fourth and one at midfield, Felton was stuffed for a three-yard loss. The Trojans could not convert. A Slovis pass to St. Brown went off the receiver’s hands and Stephan Blaylock made a one-handed interception. On the very next play, Thompson-Robinson connected with tight end Greg Dulcich who had no defender anywhere near him. It was a 69-yard touchdown, and the Bruins were back up to a 35-23 lead at the end of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter is where things completely collapsed as USC outscored the Bruins 20-3. On third and 12 at the UCLA 30, Slovis’ pass to Erik Krommenhoek was incomplete. But Qwuantrezz Knight was called for pass interference. Three plays later Vavae Malepeai ran it in from 10 yards out for the touchdown. The UCLA lead was back down to 35-30.
On the next Bruins drive, Thompson-Robinson never saw Talano Hufanga jump the pattern. Hufanga had the interception at the UCLA 46-yard line and ran it all the way back for a pick-six. A block in the back penalty after the interception negated the touchdown, but USC had the ball at the UCLA 30, and they had all the momentum.
Slovis would connect with London for the nine-yard touchdown pass and the Trojans had their first lead of the night at 36-35 with eight minutes left.
A Fourth And One To Forget
The Bruins had a critical moment on offense on the next drive. With a fourth and one at the USC 37, Keegan Jones tried to run up the middle. He was stopped for no gain. Not only had Jones had only one carry the entire game, he also missed the hole in front of him on this play. Asked after the game why UCLA went with Jones on the play instead of Felton or Brown, Kelly said, “He was the back that was in the game at the time.” The Bruins came out without much needed points.
With just over two minutes left, on third and two at the USC 24-yard line, Thompson-Robinson was dropped for a two-yard loss. That left it up to Nicholas Barr-Mira to convert on a 43-yard field goal. UCLA had a 38-36 lead. But the lack of football fundamentals would haunt the Bruins again.
R.J. Lopez had been kicking off deep into the end zone all night. But at this critical time, his kick-off was taken by Gary Bryant at the one-yard line. He had a gap on the right side, broke some arm tackles and had a 56-yard return to the UCLA 43-yard line. Instead of playing conservative for the game winning field goal, USC coach Clay Helton went all in to put the game away. Slovis completed the pass to Vaughns for 35 yards, and then another to St. Brown for eight yards and the winning touchdown.
What Is There To Say?
After the game, Kelly was asked to give his assessment. “It was kind of a heavyweight fight and you’re just trading blows.” Make no mistake, this was not a heavyweight fight with the lead going back and forth. This was UCLA giving up an 18-point second half lead because it could not maintain execution on either side of the ball for 60 minutes.
Thompson-Robinson said, “This isn’t a normal game, and this isn’t a normal loss. This hurts.” He also said the postgame locker room was the quietest he had ever experienced at UCLA. Not much can be said when opportunities get so squandered.