It wasn’t the blowout they had hoped for, but it was enough to keep their College Football Playoff Hopes alive.
Behind a masterful performance by quarterback Caleb Williams, No. 7 USC rallied from down 14 points to defeat crosstown rival No. 16 UCLA, 48-45, to punch their ticket to the Pac 12 title game.
“Iconic game. It lived up to the billing,” said USC head coach Lincoln Riley. “Both teams are really good. A lot of back-and-forth. It’s pretty cool to be sitting here with our 10th win and to get to go to the championship game.”
Before the game, the Trojans probably couldn’t have envisioned going scoreless on their first two possessions inside the red zone, and trailing 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. But that’s exactly the situation they found themselves in after the first 12 minutes on Saturday night in front of a sold out crowd at the Rose Bowl.
“You build these games up in your head and when you dream about the game, you think you’re going to jump out to this big lead and play this unbelievable game. You never think you’re going to go out there and go down 14 to nothing,” said Riley. “You can’t write the script first, you just have to be ready to respond. We went down 14 to nothing and we didn’t even flinch.”
Flinch they did not, and unfortunately for the Bruins, that first quarter shock was exactly what USC needed to awaken the sleeping giant from within.
The Trojans put up 48 points after the first quarter and the second half turned into the high-octane offensive shootout we all thought it would be.
The two teams combined for an astonishing 1,155 yards of total offense.
UCLA jumped out to the early lead after a 40-second stint that saw them score two touchdowns.
After stalling on their first two drives in the red zone—a turnover on downs and a missed field goal—Williams was intercepted by Kain Medrano on the second play of their third drive.
One play later, Dorian Thompson-Robinson found a wide-open Michael Ezeike for a 30-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bruins a 14-0 lead.
“We were down 14 today. Swings are going to happen, and you have to be prepared for them,” said Williams on how he kept the Trojans poised after falling behind by two touchdowns for the first time this season. “You have to keep fighting. You have to stay together. The game is never over in these big games.”
Despite missing yet another field goal, the Trojans would outscore the Bruins 20-7 in the second quarter and head to the locker room trailing 21-20.
The crosstown showdown caught fire in the second half, with both teams trading haymakers, neither able to land the knockout blow they were hoping for.
After a field goal put UCLA up 24-20, Williams found the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison for a 35-yard touchdown pass that put the Trojans in front for the first time 27-24.
Three plays later, DTR fumbled giving USC the ball right back in the red zone. Running back Austin Jones would cash in the turnover with a two-yard score and the Trojans led 34-24. The two touchdowns in under two minutes gave the Trojans their biggest lead of the game at 10 points.
But the Bruins would come right back as both teams traded touchdowns over their next six consecutive possessions combined.
The touchdown streak was snapped after Williams was sacked by Laiatu Latu on third down inside UCLA territory that gave the Bruins the ball back with 2:21 left on the clock.
“We were in our two-minute offense, which has been very good for us, and we were moving the ball well,” said UCLA head coach Chip Kelly of the Bruins chances to win the game.
But the Trojans forced their fourth turnover of the game when Korey Foreman intercepted DTR at midfield to seal the victory.
“Right before that play was called I knew I had to make a play,” said Foreman after the victory. “I was looking at the clock and pacing back and forth on the sideline and I said to myself ‘let’s do it right here, right now.’”
Williams finished with 502 total yards, the most in the rivalry’s history, and three touchdowns. DTR threw for 309 yards and four touchdowns, but threw three interceptions. Addison had 11 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown. Jones rushed for a 120 yards and two touchdowns.
“Caleb is a great player. You see the fire and passion he brings to every single game and that’s why we’re sitting here with one loss,” said Jones of his quarterback. “His fire, his competitiveness, and his effort. He brings that every single day and he pushes each and every one of us. That’s what a great player does.”
The win gives USC their 51st win in the history of the rivalry, which is one of the more unique in the country due to the fact that the two campuses are less than 12 miles apart. It also guarantees that the Victory Bell, the award given to the winner of the crosstown showdown, switches hands from UCLA to USC.
“For a lot of the guys on the team, this is a revenge tour,” said Trojans’ linebacker Tuli Tuipulotu, who was on the team during last season’s 62-33 blowout loss to the Bruins. “We need our get backs for a lot of the teams that disrespected us last year. So we’re excited to beat this team and get to the championship.”
This game marked just the third time both teams scored over 40 points in the 93-year history of the rivalry.
“When I was seven years old, I would watch the USC-UCLA game and cry if we [USC] lost this game and I wasn’t even on the team,” said Trojans’ receiver Kyle Ford. “But we’re not crying today.”
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Source: NBC Los Angeles