The USC Trojans met one of their stiffest tests from a supposedly overmatched opponent this week, and scraped out of their rivalry game with a 28-23 win over UCLA on Saturday night.
UCLA came into the game second-to-last in the country in rushing yards per game, which spelled huge trouble against a powerful USC line and talented running back Ronald Jones. In fact, opponents have run the ball against UCLA over 50 times per game– only San Jose State is run on more. In addition, UCLA gave up 5.8 yards per carry coming into the game, good for fourth-worst in the nation.
The untold story of this game is how well the USC rushing defense actually performed. Ronald Jones looked like he had a good game — 122 yards on two touchdowns — but he did it on 28 carries. On the season, Jones averages 6.7 yards per carry. UCLA held the Trojans as a team to 3.7 yards per carry, a full two yards better than what UCLA came into the game giving up. If you want the story of why this game was close, it’s all on the UCLA defense.
Battle of the quarterbacks
This year’s edition of the “Battle for the Victory Bell” was also pegged as a battle between two presumed first-round draft picks; UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold. Neither has said so far that he will be leaving after this year, but both are eligible. There have been conflicting rumors as to whether Darnold will leave, while the only information about Rosen is that head coach Jim Mora believes he will stay. Both definitely have work still to do, but Rosen looks close to NFL-ready right now. Whenever they do come out, though, both are expected to be first-round picks– and if they both come out in the same year, that will make the first time ever that a UCLA and USC quarterback have been drafted in the first round in the same year.
But if this game was a battle of quarterbacks, Rosen clearly came out ahead. The UCLA signal-caller completed 35 of 52 passes, for 421 yards and three touchdowns, against a pretty good USC secondary. Darnold, on the other hand, wasn’t asked to throw as much, as USC leaned on its running game. Darnold completed a more modest 17 of 28 attempts, for 264 yards and no scores.
The story of this game, as far as the quarterbacks were concerned, were the turnovers. Darnold has more turnovers than any other player this season after throwing a tough interception in UCLA territory late in the first half. He also fumbled a scramble, but replay (somewhat controversially) determined that his knee was down before the ball game out. So it could have been worse.
UCLA was in this game in its entirety, but the Bruins could not overcome two brutal turnovers by Rosen deep in USC territory. He fumbled while being sacked towards the end of the first half, and threw an interception in the end zone on the first drive of the second half. Both of those UCLA drives made it into the red zone, but neither came away with points due to Rosen’s mistakes. Rosen fought back, though, and kept his team in it throughout.
USC scored first after a miscommunication on a UCLA punt. The punt coverage team was aligned for a punt to the left side of the field, but the punter kicked it to the right and there was no one there to stop Michael Pittman, Jr. from racing 72 yards down the sideline. UCLA responded with a good drive, capped by an 11-yard touchdown catch by Jordan Lasley. Lasley, for all his struggles this season, was huge for UCLA in this game–catching ten passes for 204 yards and all three Bruins touchdowns.
USC responded with a touchdown, and after three touchdowns in the first 11 minutes, there would be no more scoring in the first half. The Bruins had two potential drives, but one ended in a missed field goal and the other was terminated by the aforementioned Rosen fumble.
Every time UCLA looked out of it in the second half, Rosen was there to bring his team back in it. The Bruins twice fell down by two scores, but in both instances Rosen responded with an immediate touchdown drive, each capped by passes to Lasley. After UCLA’s final score, though, the onside kick failed, and the Bruins could not stop Jones from getting a first down and icing the game.
There are few moral victories in rivalry games, but UCLA is still playing for its bowl life next week against Cal. With the way the Bruins played this week–they essentially outplayed USC–they should be able to earn that bowl bid.
USC, on the other hand, finally gets its bye week, and awaits its challenger in the Pac 12 Championship Game. USC has never won the conference since the conference expanded to 12 teams and split into two divisions (the Pac-12 is 0-6 in the conference title game), and is looking for a New Years’ Six Bowl with a win–or maybe even a Playoff berth, if we see a miraculous amount of chaos. The Trojans will face Washington State if the Cougars beat rival Washington next week; or they face Stanford if Washington wins.