LOS ANGELES – When asked earlier in the week what advice he’d give UCLA head coach Jim Mora as he entered his first crosstown rivalry, Lane Kiffin said Mora didn’t need any of his advice.
“They’re ranked ahead of us,” Kiffin said.
The USC head coach — on the other hand — could have used some pointers.
As the lights shined brightly on the Rose Bowl on a soggy Saturday afternoon, it was Mora and company who looked like they’d been there before.
When you looked up at the scoreboard with 7:38 left in the first half and saw No. 17 UCLA leading No. 18 USC 24-0, you realized 50-0 was so last year.
The Trojans were dominated by UCLA 38-28, falling to their crosstown rivals for the first time in six years and losing both the Pac-12 South Division championship and a chance to return to the Rose Bowl.
Kiffin was left to answer questions about his quarterback, who left the Rose Bowl in a sling after being hit hard on a sack by Anthony Barr late in the fourth quarter, to which he didn’t provide an injury update because the team doesn’t discuss injuries.
Asked about his job status, Kiffin replied he was assured that he would be back next season as the USC head coach.
As far as this season goes, the wheels have certainly come off for the Trojans (7-4, 5-4 Pac-12 South). They’ve lost three of their last four games, including two in November, a month that has been productive for them in recent years. In the process, they’ve gone from a preseason No. 1 to a team with four losses, looking at a potential date in El Paso on New Year’s Eve for the Sun Bowl.
Saturday, it certainly wasn’t the first rodeo for coach and quarterback, but it was hard to tell in the early going.
Barkley was intercepted on the game’s first play from scrimmage by UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester on a ball intended for Marqise Lee, which led to a Brett Hundley one-yard score to put the Bruins up 7-0.
Hundley compounded Barkley’s rough start. While the Trojans senior quarterback was still in search of his first completion, the freshman directing UCLA (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12 South) completed his first 10 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.
Barkley didn’t complete his first pass until just over a minute left in the first quarter. By that time, the Trojans were already in the hole, 17-0.
For USC, it was another case of the slow starts.
“We, kind of, dug ourselves in a hole that we couldn’t get out of which was unfortunate today,” said Barkley, who completed 20-of-38 passes for 301 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions.
It’s a microcosm of the season that is for USC. In a season they entered as the national championship favorites, they won’t even sniff the BCS trophy. Such is the case in big games for USC this season.
Stanford, Oregon and Saturday against UCLA provided the Trojans with a statement game. They’ve responded by not saying much with their play. When the lights come on, this team has not performed, crumbling in big settings.
“I’m sure that with expectations like that, it forces you sometimes to press that you’re going to do everything perfect and we try to manage those,” Kiffin said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t done well at times.”
Turnovers have been an Achilles’ heel in such games. Barkley threw two more interceptions on Saturday, giving him a career high 15 on the year. Lee had a fumble to give USC a total of three turnovers which led to 14 UCLA points. UCLA also blocked two kicks.
“I think the number one glaring thing in our losses has been turnovers,” Kiffin said. “We haven’t gotten many and we’ve had way too many.
“We’re killing momentum, obviously, with those things and you’re defense goes back out after one play. That would be the number one thing I would point to.”
USC gained the momentum in the third quarter. On UCLA’s first drive, the Bruins fumbled, which was recovered in the end zone by George Uko, capping off a string of 20 consecutive points for the Trojans going back to the first half.
“I thought it would be the turnaround,” Uko said of the touchdown that made the score 24-20. “I thought we would get the job done from there.”
It wasn’t to be. When pressed, Hundley came up with answers. He rushed for his second touchdown of the game that put the Bruins back up by two scores, 31-20.
The Trojans then got to within three with 7:22 left in fourth quarter when Barkley found Lee for a 14-yard score to cut the deficit to 31-28.
But Hundley and the Bruins responded with a nine-play, 83-yard drive, capped off by a Johnathan Franklin 29-yard touchdown run to give the Bruins a 38-28 lead. Franklin rushed 29 times for 171 yards and two touchdowns to return the Victory Bell to Westwood for the first time since the infamous 13-9 game of 2006.
Hundley completed 22-of-30 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for two scores.
The Bruins celebrated a win in their locker room unlike anything Mora has seen.
“It was just, really, a neat experience for me,” Mora said. “It was something that I haven’t been a part of before. You don’t get that atmosphere in an NFL locker room.”
Peharps, a tip on the postgame celebration wouldn’t have hurt, but he probably didn’t need it.