LOS ANGELES-At the beginning of the 2016 college football season, the UCLA Bruins were the eye-candy of the Pac-12 Conference, landing a cushy No. 5 preseason ranking in USA Today Sports poll.
After being beat 36-14 by the USC Trojans at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the Bruins went to being just the kind of candy that holds still to the wrapper with nowhere to go.
Funny how expectations and results on the field can change things. This was supposed to the breakout year for UCLA and quarterback Josh Rosen. Rosen, had already been anointed as the chosen one, a gifted signal-caller about to do big things in Westwood.
A possible Heisman Trophy run by Rosen were in the minds of many after he threw for 3, 670 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015. Then Rosen got hurt with an injured shoulder and the Bruins have not been the same since. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the USC Trojans, came into the season almost on the outside looking in.
That same USA Today Sports College Football poll put the Trojans in as the No. 34 team in the nation. No respect. With the defection of Cody Kessler to the NFL, USC didn’t have an identity at the QB spot.
The Trojans had the talent around the position with punt return specialist and cornerback Adoree Jackson, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Ronald Jones ready to rumble. Max Browne won out his competition against Sam Darnold. But then Alabama hit the Trojans in the mouth and kept it moving.
USC struggled in losses to Utah and to Stanford. USC coach Clay Helton went for a reboot at quarterback and put Darnold in the starting lineup. The Trojans have been rolling since. Smashing UCLA on the road, in front of thousands of Bruins fans, cemented USC’s rise as one of the best teams in the country.
The Cardinal and gold keep fighting on. And they keep winning. Big. This is not the same USC football season that got wiped out by the tsunami called the Crimson Tide. The Trojans, after they took out the Bruins, look like a team that can play with any other squad in the country, including that same Alabama team that demolished them in the first game of the season.
If they had a re-do with the top-ranked team in the nation, there is no doubt that the Crimson Tide would be playing against a more determined Trojans team. A trip to the Rose Bowl would reflect that. But the only way that could happen is if Colorado loses its last game of the season.
Should the Buffaloes stumble, and the Trojans beat Notre Dame, USC would win the Pac-12 Conference South Division and head into a rematch with Washington in the Pac-12 Conference Championship. And that would be a dandy, considering USC ambushed the Huskies earlier this season.
For now, though, the Trojans have one title they can keep for at least one year, and that’s being declared the city’s unofficial champions after their victorious takeover in Pasadena. This rivalry game lost its fizz early and turned out to be an epic dud for the Bruins.
By midway of the fourth quarter, the Rose Bowl, home to the Bruins, had turned into a desert island of leftover trash, tossed aside pom-poms and blue-and-gold broken hearts. With USC’s band playing “UCLA Sucks!” it is safe to assume it was not a good night for the Bruins, although the evening started off as promising.
Jordan Lasley’s 56-yard pass and grab touchdown from Mike Fafaul, gave UCLA a quick 7-0 lead. The Bruins’ offense then went to sleep after that, even though Lasley caught another pass for a TD in the second quarter. USC woke up from their series-opening hibernation to methodically break down the Bruins.
That’s the story for the Trojans. USC stumbled out of the box at the beginning of the season. They’ve been riding the wave of wins. That’s because Helton, who has beaten UCLA coach Jim Mora in two straight games, made several invaluable decisions to give his team a jolt.
He made Jones the starter over Justin Davis at running back. Replacing Browne with the more explosive Darnold has been the deal-maker for the Trojans. During USC’s seven-game win streak it has been the Jones and Darnold Show.
The Bruins received front row tickets to the weekly tag-team performance as they watched Jones rush for 121 yards, including sprinting his way to a 60-yard touchdown run, and saw Darnold quietly beat them with his pass-efficient accuracy. Since Helton made those two moves, the Trojans have been steamrolling other teams.