The Pac-12 South is the Trojans’ alone after a rivalry victory over UCLA
Back in September before their game against ASU, it was a Friday night meeting with a focus on turnovers that propelled USC to a bounce-back win in the desert. On Saturday, with the Pac-12 South on the line and their hated rivals on the other side of the trenches, it was a Monday morning decision that vaulted the Trojans’ to a 40–21 win over UCLA.
“We made a decision on Monday that we were not going to lose this game,” said QB Cody Kessler afterward.
In what was a short 7-to-10 minute meeting, according to wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, the message delivered by those who spoke was clear: USC was not going to drop their fourth rivalry game in a row.
“He said, ‘We just gotta fight … throughout the adversity, it’s about us, and this team,’ Ronald Jones II explained. “We went and proved it today.”
“The leadership spoke on it,” said Smith-Schuster when asked about it. “Everything we said in there made us come out and do this today.”
Kessler may have been one of the motivational voices in that room Monday morning, but in what was his final game at the Coliseum Saturday—his last chance to earn a win over the Bruins—the fifth-year senior was second fiddle to the outstanding defensive play that limited UCLA to only seven points in the second half.
“They played their butts off defensively.” — Clay Helton
Once again, it was the big plays that drove the Trojans to victory, though not many of them came when they actually possessed the ball.
Instead, it was the defensive line performance that posted three sacks, held the Bruins to 4-of-14 on third downs and eventually forced a fumble that freshman Rasheem Green returned for a touchdown. It was the secondary that recorded key pass break-ups and two interceptions by Iman Marshall. It was Adoree’ Jackson once again adding his name to the scoreboard with an electric punt return for a touchdown.
There was the Helton-established, methodical run game that had 59 carries—the most in any game this season—there was the great catch and stretch for a touchdown by Darreus Rogers and there was Ronald Jones breaking the all-time freshman record for rushing yards in a season.
It was a confluence of successes at the most opportune time for the Trojans. Yet afterward, their star wide receiver attributed their victory to their toughness.
“What won us the game was our O-Line and our D-Line,” — Juju Smith-Schuster
UCLA’s three straight wins over USC had naturally created a narrative of toughness vs. weakness between the two squads. The Bruins had been given the role of the strong, the Trojans had been saddled with the adjective of the weak.
On Saturday, with a title berth on the line, the faulty narrative was flipped on its head; the toughness manifested more from the Cardinal and Gold than from those donning powder blues.
“We just wanted it so much,” said defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr. “We knew what was on the line, so we did everything we could to go accomplish that.”
Strong defensive play throughout became the set-up to an absolutely time-consuming, 6+ minute drive in the fourth quarter that put the Bruins under a heavy dose of Justin Davis and ended up in a touchdown that would all but lock up the result.
Yet another defensive stop rendered the Bruins poweless during a fourth quarter in which they gained a mere 11 offensive yards, and it would be a final drive of 5 minutes that would put the finishing touches on the victory.
Afterward, the takeaway message from multiple players was simple and clear:
“We run LA.”
For all the talk about the coaching search, the impending decision over Helton, the players’ outspoken support, Saturday was about the guys in pads out on the field, not the men in suits who will be forced to make such decisions.
No one has reiterated that message more throughout his tenure more than Helton himself.
“I am very proud of our players. Players win games,” Helton said afterward, refusing to speculate on his future. “They are leaving their mark not only now, but for years to come.”
Among the many former Trojans at the Coliseum on Saturday was running back LenDale White. When talking to reporters, White gave his support fo Helton and reiterated how important it was for a USC player to win two games every season: Notre Dame and UCLA.
The former slipped away from this year’s team, but behind a motivated squad that played for both the seniors and their coach, they made certain the latter was accomplished.
Now, they’ll move on their next biggest game as the Pac-12 Championship awaits — another form of redemption attainable in the form of a rematch against a Stanford team that beat them earlier this year. This is what this team wanted.
“Failure was not an option this week.” — Clay Helton
All week, from the captains, to the starters to the backups, the Trojans downplayed the rivalry, citing this matchup to be just another game and nothing more. On Saturday, in a game that demanded more drive and desire, a game that typically needs no motivation, the Trojans halted recent precedent and gave themselves a shot at the type of success no one saw coming earlier this season.