Memories of a season ago lingered in Westwood. UCLA represented the Pac-12 South in the conference’s inaugural championship game, but the Bruins were not divisional champions. USC reminded UCLA of that, parading about the Coliseum with t-shirts declaring its Pac-12 South dominance after running up the score, 50-0, on lame duck head coach Rick Neuheisel.
Don’t think the returning Bruins didn’t remember. There was a point to be made from the onset Saturday in the 84th installment of the rivalry, evident in UCLA’s inspired play. Senior running back Johnathan Franklin had never beaten the Trojans, but he played like someone who desperately wanted to. Franklin rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns to set the tone for the UCLA upperclassmen.
His efforts helped the Bruins build a 24-0 lead that initially made this year’s edition of the rivalry look like a receipt for 2011. The Bruins defenders were hungry, forcing Matt Barkley into an opening drive interception. Barkley was pressured on seemingly every snap. There isn’t going to be an asterisk next to UCLA’s Pac-12 championship game appearance this year.
One Los Angeles team played Saturday like it had unfinished business. It just wasn’t the side that had spent all off-season and much of the fall hash-tagging it.
USC eventual got it going, cutting the lead to four and three on two occasions. Heisman contender Marqise Lee had another standout effort, catching nine passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. But another Trojan once considered a Heisman candidate — a Heisman favorite — struggled.
Quarterback Matt Barkley coined the 2012 Trojan motto unfinished business last December when he announced his return to USC for another season. Barkley led the Trojans to a stellar finish in 2011, capping a 10-2 campaign with the aforementioned rout of UCLA. Lane Kiffin kept Barkley in and allowed him to pass much longer than usual decorum would dictate in that game, and the then-junior responded with six touchdown passes.
The final was to Robert Woods, who set a conference single season record for receptions in that contest. This year’s contest was an odd inversion of what transpired in 2011.
Woods’ place in the USC offense dwindled in 2012. Barkley set another record on a miscommunicated route with Woods on Saturday, throwing his 15th interception of the year. That number surpassed Barkley’s high of 14 interceptions, thrown his freshman season.
Much of the narrative that will emanate from Rose Bowl Stadium in the coming days will be about Barkley’s inability to lead a fourth quarter rally in his career. Or, media that set irrationally high expectations on a thin roster will question Kiffin’s readiness to coach the program.
But the real LA story from Saturday is UCLA. Seniors like Franklin experienced their first taste of success over the hated Trojans. Youngsters like quarterback Brett Hundley took part in what could be a regular tradition — bringing the Victory Bell to Westwood.
UCLA has had no shortage of talent in recent years. Rick Neuheisel was among the conference’s most successful recruiters in his time there, but scouting service stars didn’t translate to wins. Jim Mora and his staff capitalized on the existing talent this season. With USC just beginning to feel the pinch of NCAA sanctions, the Bruins have a grand opening to reestablish their place in the conference.
Two straight trips to the Pac-12 championship game isn’t a bad way to start.
UCLA won all three phases of Saturday’s game. The defense had lapses, particularly when Lee got into space. The superstar sophomore receiver posed the Bruin secondary problems, as expected. But even when USC cut into the lead, UCLA never looked rattled. The Bruins got plays when they were necessary, whether a timely turnover on defense; a big Franklin run or one of Hundley’s 22 completions on offense; or a blocked kick in special teams.
The Bruins had dominated Washington State in special teams a week ago, and that success carried over into Saturday. USC employed the shield formation block on one attempt deep in Trojan territory — as our Jeff Twining illustrated in his evaluation of the formation, things went awry.
Mora had his team motivated and prepared, as has been the case each time UCLA has taken the field since a lopsided, disjointed loss at Cal. UCLA’s in-season turnaround since that loss is perhaps the most impressive of any team in college football. The Bruins are playing with championship mettle at the right time, and will get their shot at the Rose Bowl.