This game deserved a full house, really.
It deserved the USC and UCLA bands competing to drown each other out. It deserved the SC student section waving the victory sign during “Conquest,” and the UCLA students responding by waving their car keys at the USC students because, you know, tuition. (But please, no Aunt Becky jokes.)
USC-UCLA did get the national audience it deserved Saturday evening. And that audience got a show that reminded the nation why Pac-12 After Dark can be consistently so darned entertaining.
But it was a bit offputting that the ABC/ESPN broadcast crew kept bringing up College Football Playoff implications, even though that was probably part of the broadcast contract to hype ESPN’s future coverage.
The odds of a Pac-12 team being in a national semifinal, and especially in a season where it might play a maximum of six games, is remote. You know it, I know it, and Larry Scott knows it.
But who cares, really?
USC 43, UCLA 38 was a great college football game on its own terms, without any external ramifications or even any of the traditional trappings of America’s best intracity rivalry. This one, which turned on Kedon Slovis’ touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown with 16 seconds left and was definitively decided when Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s final play Hail Mary pass was knocked to the turf in the end zone, should hang prominently in an already crowded gallery of great Trojan-Bruin finishes.
(Or maybe I’m just biased because I called my shot on Twitter during the third quarter: “USC is going to win this thing at the end.”
Clearly, my talents are misplaced. If I’d used that foresight to pick Saturday night’s Powerball numbers … but I digress.)
The point: This game didn’t need a trumped-up story line. And in a year in which college football’s mere reason for playing came into question, with canceled games and positive tests and conduct from the adults that made you wonder just on earth they were thinking, the wild twists and turns of the 90th meeting between these rivals reminded you why we watch.
It requires some cognitive dissonance, true. These athletes entertain us, excite us, sometimes frustrate us depending on our rooting interest, all while others reap the rewards of this sport/business. Even when we take all of that into account, we come back every week because it’s great theater.
It was all of that: The Bruins jumping to a 14-0 lead and taking a 28-10 lead on their first possession of the second half, the Trojans mounting their third fourth-quarter comeback in five games this season, leading 36-35 on Slovis’ second touchdown pass of the game to Drake London with 8:09 left, only to be on that edge of the cliff again after Nicholas Barr-Mira’s 43-yard field goal put UCLA ahead 38-36 with 52 seconds left.
And then Gary Bryant, a freshman, daringly decided to run back the kickoff from the 1 rather than taking the touchback, and he ran it all the way to the UCLA 45. Two plays later the Trojans had the lead again. And then the Bruins got the ball back with 16 ticks left and got to the USC 42 with three seconds left, and throughout Southern California hearts were in throats as Thompson-Robinson’s heave toward the end zone sailed through the Pasadena evening, with Trojan cornerback Chris Steele credited with breaking it up.
“The kids kept fighting, and down the stretch they just made play after play after play,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Great college football game. Lot of appreciation for Coach (Chip) Kelly and the job that he’s doing with his (UCLA) team. That’s a very well-coached team and they played their hearts out tonight.
“I’ve had some special memories in this stadium, but this year in 2020, with this team, it’s as special as it gets.”
In a sense, Pandemic football gave the coaches of these teams a break this year. Helton continues to be the whipping boy for Trojan fans, even though his team hasn’t lost a game this year. But there is no sound track of boos, and the shortened season and extreme conditions basically made this season a free pass regardless of record. And, yes, 5-0 is 5-0, and the Pac-12 championship game will be in the Coliseum Friday night.
Kelly had his own issues with a program that had underachieved in his tenure at UCLA. But a close loss at Colorado turned out to be far more impressive than it seemed at the time because of the Buffs’ performances up until Saturday, when Utah ambushed them. Their loss at Oregon was frustrating, but they acquitted themselves well and had a chance to the end. And there was no reason for any Bruin to be embarrassed after this game.
“I thought our kids competed well but they just made one more play than we did,” Kelly said afterward.
They competed. They played like it mattered. Who can ask for more?
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter