four years in the making, usc Football takes back the city's throne
By Connor McGlynn
Four years and four head coaches later, it’s over.
Baby blue and gold no longer hold the grasp over the city of Los Angeles.
It took four years, a Pac-12 South title, senior day and an interim head coach as motivation, but its over.
With a 40-21 victory over UCLA (8-4, 5-4) Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the USC football team (8-4, 6-3) has once again taken control of the crosstown rivalry and secured, in one of the most improbable ways, a trip to the Pac-12 Championship game and a berth to play in the Rose Bowl.
“One thing Coach Helton has talked about is how do you want to leave your legacy?” said redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler after the game. “I have been through everything you can think of since my sophomore year. Big picture, it would be amazing, but we have to take it one game at a time.”
Being the last home game of the year and the finale in the Trojan seniors’ careers, pressure fell on Kessler’s shoulders entering the game.
A three-year starter who entered the game having had more head coaches than touchdown passes in his career against UCLA (2), found himself in an unusual situation: he wasn’t the primary offensive option.
Despite a slow start that featured Kessler going a mere 3-for-8 for 37 yards in the first quarter and completing just 10 passes by halftime, it was the USC running attack that stole the show.
With redshirt senior running back Tre Madden back in the mix to complete the three-headed monster of junior Justin Davis and freshman Ronald Jones II, the ground game took over.
USC turned to the rushing attack a season-high 59 times, more than double Kessler’s 26 throws, for a total of 235 yards against a UCLA defense that allows an average of 183.5 rushing yards per game.
Davis followed up a career-high 141 yard performance last weekend with 130 against the Bruins on 25 attempts, nearly equaling Kessler’s attempts on his own.
“It feels good. I’m starting to get into a really nice rhythm,” Davis said. “Coach Helton has all the confidence in me and that makes me play that much harder. With the way the O-Line is blocking, the sky is the limit.”
Davis was not alone in soaking in the limelight as Jones scampered for 63 yards on 17 attempts, setting a new USC freshman single season rushing record with 890, breaking Heisman winner Charles White’s record of 858 set in 1976.
“It means everything,” Jones said about breaking the record. “It’s just a testament to my coaches and the O-Line and everybody’s hard work finally paying off.”
However, when the Trojans needed the big plays, it was neither the offense that came through nor the seniors.
Following a 21-yard USC field goal in the second quarter to cut it to a 14-13 UCLA lead, the Cardinal and Gold defense issued heavy pressure on three straight plays, culminating with a 14 yard sack by redshirt junior Scott Felix.
Pinned deep in their own end of the field, a low line-drive punt was taken by sophomore Adoree Jackson.
Bouncing off the first attacker, Jackson streaked up the left sideline for a 42-yard touchdown, his second punt return touchdown of his career following a similar 41-yard score last week against Oregon.
“I was just being patient with everything,” Jackson said while walking off the Coliseum grass. “I knew with whatever was going on, I would just play my game, let it come to me and don’t try to attack the game. It came to me and it just worked out perfectly.”
Later in the third, now trailing 21-20, UCLA set up its drive at the 41 yard line.
As freshman quarterback Josh Rosen dropped back, redshirt senior Claude Pelon knocked the ball free and freshman Rasheem Green saw a bouncing ball and had one thing on his mind.
“I couldn’t believe the ball was on the ground for a second and I just picked it up because there was no one around it and I scored,” Green said about scoring the first touchdown of his life. “I ran as fast and hard as I could to get that touchdown.”
The next time UCLA’s offense took the field, it was the secondary that got in on the action.
Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall jumped a route to intercept Rosen, ending the freshman from Westwood’s school-record 287 consecutive pass attempts without a pick, setting up Kessler and the offense with a short field that culminated with a beautifully outstretched touchdown catch by junior Darreus Rogers to give the Trojans a 33-21 lead that they would not relinquish.
Marshall’s day was not done.
Late in the fourth quarter following a clock killing 11 play, 6:53 touchdown drive by USC to stretch the lead to 19, Rosen had UCLA driving down the field until the freshman played pitch and catch with another freshman once again in Marshall to seal the game, his second interception of the game and third of the season.
USC will now head north to take on Stanford for the Pac-12 Title at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, California December 5 at 4:45 p.m. in a rematch of a mid-September battle that resulted in a 41-31 Cardinal victory.
Overcoming adversity throughout the season and beating the crosstown rival for the first time in four years would take a toll on most teams, but as redshirt senior defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr. puts it, “it does seem a little surreal, but we knew what we were capable of.”
J. Rosen: 19-37, 227 yards, 1 TD, 2 Ints
P. Perkins: 17 attempts, 95 yards, 2 TDs
C. Kessler: 15-26, 175 yards, 2 TDs
J. Davis: 25 attempts, 130 yards
(Photo on header was taken by Daniel Tran/ Neon Tommy)