The Corner is Turned

It just hasn't been apppropriate to say-- until now: UCLA's football program looks like it has officially turned the proverbial corner in beating USC 38-28 at the Rose Bowl Saturday...

All last week on Bruin Report Online, we spent a great deal of time discussing some of the best moments in the UCLA-USC rivalry.

Jim Mora, Brett Hundley, Johnathan Franklin and the rest of the 2012 Bruins went out Saturday and created another one, beating USC 38-28.

In the pantheon of wins over USC, this one in 2012 could very well be remembered as one of the best, and most significant.

It could very well be remembered as the game that transformed the UCLA program, and the balance of power in college football in Los Angeles.

We've been looking for the right time to say for the last, oh, 8 years or so...but we think it truly is the moment worthy of finally committing to saying it.

The Corner Has Been Turned.

Of course, there are going to be some setbacks, and some mild regressions. You can't expect, once the corner has been turned, for the road to be completely pothole-free. But with where the program was yesterday at 11:59, compared to where we now can realistically see it traveling, it's pretty safe to finally be able to say it.

It's a new day, and a whole new world for Bruin football.

This week we wrote a series about the five best wins in the UCLA-USC rivalry, and we talked about how there was something magical about those games, something in the air almost. This 2012 game had that. It might have been the added effect of the rain, the still beautiful sight of UCLA's and USC's home jerseys clashing...

...but it was definitely because UCLA played great football.

In detailing out how great it was, we're not going to start with the obvious -- Hundley, Franklin or even the UCLA coaching staff.

Let's start with Aaron Hester. The senior cornerback, who has had his ups and downs during his career at UCLA, had his best day as a Bruin, on the best day he possibly could have. I don't know who got the game balls from Saturday, but if Hester didn't get one it's a travesty. We're officially giving him the BRO Game Ball. He, for the most part, went up against the best receiver in the country, the guy that seemed inhuman and utterly impossible to stop -- USC's Marqise Lee. In our preview of the game, we said that there was no stopping Lee, only a chance to do other things that negate what he does. Lee had 9 catches for 158 yards and one touchdown -- and that is a case of severely limiting him. Lee, quite possibly, is the best receiver I've ever seen a UCLA team have to defend, and Hester kept him from being the primary factor in this game, like he had been in so many USC games this season. Hester began the afternoon with a play that quite possibly was the biggest one of the game -- intercepting Matt Barkley's forced throw to Lee. It was a huge play, probably because it set a tone for the game -- a tone of possibility for UCLA, and a note of possible defeat for USC. You could feel that it created a mental hole that USC was trying to climb out of the rest of the day. Then at the beginning of the fourth quarter, with the momentum of the game still not thoroughly grasped by either team, with UCLA leading 31-20, Hester made the break-up of his UCLA career. It was actually against USC's Nelson Agholor, who is a very talented and slippery receiver in his own right and, as a freshman, could very well be the impact USC receiver of the future. Hester was in man coverage, on an island if there ever was one, without a safety behind him to give him just that -- safety. Agholor cut on a deep slant with no one around him but Hester, and Barkley threw a pretty perfect ball. It was the kind of play that UCLA fans have come to resign themselves over for many years that is just simply going to get completed and go for a touchdown -- and turn the game's momentum toward the opposing team. But Hester was glued to Agholor, and reached in with perfect timing and knocked the ball away before it could even get into Agholor's hands. It was a textbook break-up, one you'd show high school players when you were teaching them how to play cornerback. Between that first play of the game and that immensely important break-up, Hester played very well, too. It was wonderful vindication for a player we've always respected for his work ethic and dedication to be as good as he possibly could be. It all came together in this game for Hester.

Even though USC passed for 341 yards, which was above their average per game (303), you still felt that UCLA contained USC's passing game. Another game ball goes to UCLA's secondary as a whole, for keeping the most potent aspect of either team from dominating the game.

Perhaps the most significant element of this game, which was probably the biggest contributor to UCLA's win, was the time of possession. In the modern age of college football, with so many up-tempo, quick-strike offenses, the time of possession has become less and less of an indicative stat. In the game's preview, though, we wrote that the way for UCLA to win this game was to sustain drives and keep possession of the ball, thus keeping UCLA's defense fresh and USC's offense off the field. That completely worked out. UCLA had 33:20 time of possession, to USC's 26:40. And the differential was even more pronounced through most of the game. The UCLA offensive game plan was perfectly designed to make this happen, with a well-crafted mix of runs and ball-possession throws, and UCLA put together long, time-eating drives. It was perhaps the best gameplan of the season, balancing just enough ball-control passing with some attempts at bigger chunks of yardage, while emphasizing UCLA's strength, of running up the middle through the weakness of USC's interior defensive line. UCLA Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone, truly, crafted a thing of beauty. It has to especially be noted that, once UCLA established its sizeable lead, Mazzone didn't go conservative. There were a number of times when I even thought it'd be smart to run the ball, but Hundley kept dropping back to pass -- and completing them.

The thing is, you can always have a great game plan, but it doesn't do you squat unless it's executed well. We have to repeat, Hundley is a freak. I can't even list all of the uncanny throws he made in this game. Mazzone clearly saw vulnerability in USC's two-deep zone, and Hundley's ability to find that open space behind the corner in the flat was incredible. Many of the long outs were pure timing patterns, with Hundley uncannily making the throw before UCLA's receiver had even made his deep cut. The freakiness definitely was apparent as the game wore on, and the Rose Bowl would occasionally be doused with a downpour. Hundley wasn't affected at all. The ball spun perfectly out of his hand, like it was the driest day in the Arizona desert. There were so few balls that were inaccurate that none, actually, even stand out. If you were an alien and had just landed on this planet and didn't know who was the Heisman-hyped quarterback, and watched this game, you'd easily point to the guy in the pretty blue uniform. Of course, he showed a bit of immaturity in trying to pick up the fumble instead of just falling on it. It was almost over-confidence, though, looking like he was thinking, "Heck, I can still pick this up and make a play, no problem." Let's actually hope that Hundley continues to make inexperience gaffes -- because if he cleans up all of those (like learning when to throw the ball out of bounds) -- we might not be seeing him as UCLA's quarterback for long. It's fine, Brett, make some mistakes. We're good with it.

If there is a clear sign that this UCLA program has turned the corner and is different than what Bruin fans have been used to in its recent history, it's the fact that UCLA flat-out looked unrecognizable on third downs in this game. It converted enough third--and-longs, and one huge fourth-and-long, to practically make up for all the ones it didn't convert in the last 10 years. The conversion of the 4th-and-14 in the first quarter, which set up UCLA to score its second touchdown was very much like watching a different program. First off, going for it on 4th-and-14 at USC's 30 is a complete departure from anything the last two UCLA coaching staffs would have even remotely considered. That makes you realize that things are different. But then for a UCLA quarterback to make a perfectly thrown pass on, again, a deep timing route, and for UCLA's receiver, Shaquelle Evans, to make the catch for the first down like it was just another day at the office -- well, things are clearly different. UCLA converted 8 third- or fourth-and-longs, and six in the first half. USC and its faithful also had to be sensing something different, to watch a UCLA team do something like that so effortlessly, and something different with its own program to allow it.

In a game in which USC's receivers got a great deal of pre-game hype, UCLA's receivers easily had just as big of an impact on the game. Evans had 8 catches for 114 yards and, like we said, looked so calm and business-like. Joseph Fauria, as we said in the preview, because of his size, would have a chance to exploit USC's secondary, and he did. His best catch of the day, though, didn't take advantage of his height; it was the third-and-13 in that critical 4th quarter drive when the 6-8 Fauria got low and made a sliding catch of a ball below his knees to convert the biggest third-and-long of the game. Senior Jerry Johnson had four big catches. True freshman Devin Fuller, who more and more has to be thinking that he's a receiver and not a quarterback, also looked calm and not beset with freshman jitters at all. The most significant aspect of the UCLA receivers' contributions: No dropped balls. Perhaps it's because the balls are thrown in a way that make them very catchable, who knows? But UCLA's receivers, in another indication that things are different, are holding onto everything thrown at them.

In every great game, there is always a big play that is so decisive in the outcome, and for some reason, it seems like it's in slow motion. With UCLA up by just three points, 31-28, and the game still very much in doubt, the Bruins got the ball with 7:22 left. It was a matter of UCLA having to sustain a drive, eat some clock and get some points -- and that would put away the game. How many times have we all seen teams unable to do this, and hand back the ball to the opposing team after a three-and-out? But UCLA put the ball into the hands of its leader, Franklin, and he took the Bruins home. UCLA drove down the field, with Hundley continuing to make big throws, especially the first one, a beautiful throw to Shaquelle Evans for a gain of 18 yards (and another gutsy, unpredictable call by Mazzone, too). And then especially another third-and-long conversion, with Hundley finding Fauria for 15 yards and a first down at USC's 32. Franklin had already run for 24 yards in the drive. When he then took the handoff on a stretch, with a wall of blockers in front of him (UCLA's offensive linemen looking spry and fresh in the fourth quarter), Franklin cut around the edge, found some space, did his signature little jitterbug near-back step, and found his way in the endzone. The play took about 7 seconds, but it seemed like it was about 60 seconds, one of those frozen in time. And it was perfect that the guy who is frozen in our minds is UCLA's all-time career rushing leader. Franklin, who grew up in a USC household and has had to make excuses to his friends about his UCLA program, one which has never beaten the Trojans since he's been in Westwood, scored the clinching touchdown for the program that, on this day, is the dominant one in Los Angeles. No excuses no more.

That drive, the one that started at 7:20 left in the game, with UCLA leading by just three, 31-28, was perhaps the biggest, most-clutch drive in UCLA recent history. The outcome of the game could have gone either way at that point, and UCLA's offense, under the calm guidance of Mazzone, Hundley, Franklin and its stoic receivers, went down the field and won the game. That drive, right there, epitomized the new UCLA Bruins.

Give a great deal of credit to UCLA's offensive line. Easily the biggest strength of USC's defense is its pass rush and it did flush out Hundley and sack him. But more often than not Hundley had plenty of time to throw, and Franklin had good holes to pick through.

UCLA's defense did what it needed to do -- slow down USC's offense and make the big play. Hester's interception started it off, and you can't underscore enough how it set the tone for UCLA's defense. The Trojans didn't touch UCLA's side of the field until the second quarter. USC clearly had to make some adjustments to what it was seeing from UCLA's defense before it could get on track offensively. It did, in the second quarter, but keeping USC off the scoreboard until about 6 minutes left in the second quarter was a huge factor in the game. It was a matter, yes, of UCLA's offense sustaining drives and keeping the ball out of the hands of USC's offense, and Lee, but UCLA's defense got some stops in there, too. USC only made three first downs in the first quarter, and one was as a result of a penalty. UCLA's Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos mixed some man and zones, kept USC's offense off balance so that they really only had three quarters to play. The struggle for UCLA's defense in this game was to try to mount a pass rush. When Barkley was pressured he clearly struggled, but UCLA couldn't consistently get enough pressure on him. UCLA initially was getting a push, but USC adjusted, got some receivers in space quick enough for Barkley to get the ball off, and USC's offense started to get on track. It scored two touchdowns in the second quarter quickly, bringing the score to within 24-14, and it felt, at that time, that USC was going to be able to score at will. After UCLA gifted USC 7 points on the fumble to start the second half, it was a scary time of the game, since USC's offense had looked automatic to end the first half.

But something happened on the way to USC's offense taking over the game. It didn't. UCLA got two big stops, two three-and-outs in a row. it then also stopped a USC drive at the UCLA 27 yard line, and USC's kicker, Andre Heidari missed the 44-yarder. Three drives in the third quarter for USC, no points. The next USC drive to start the fourth quarter ended in Barkley completing a pass -- to UCLA's inside linebacker Eric Kendricks. Four drives, no points. To review, from the 13:53 mark of the third quarter when USC scored on its fumble recovery, to the 7:22 mark of the fourth quarter when USC then scored again, UCLA's defense kept USC scoreless for 21 minutes. Again, this is a departure for the UCLA program. If this had been the UCLA program of old, its defense would have surrendered in the second half once USC had sliced through it quickly for those two touchdowns in the second quarter. But UCLA's defense made a stand. It's an element of a game which had so many big plays and moments that might go unappreciated, but it can't be recognized enough how UCLA's defense in the second half, in allowing USC just 8 points, turned the momentum back around and gave UCLA the chance to win the game. The turnovers it created were huge. Kendricks' interception was a pass from heaven. There was Hester's tone-setting first interception which led to a touchdown. Kendricks, who had his cape on all day, forced the fumble in the first quarter that led to UCLA's second touchdown. There were also so many Kendricks plays. In the last few minutes of the game, when USC's back-up quarterback Max Wittek fumbled a snap and tailback Curtis Mcneal scooped it up and had some running room, it looked like one of those busted plays that would make Sports Center -- until Kendricks stepped up and made an excellent open-field tackle, keeping him from the first-down marker. The sophomore inside linebacker again led UCLA with 8 tackles and was the heart and soul of the defense.

If you're talking about the equivalent of another turnover, and since we're talking about Kendricks, his block of USC's punt toward the end of the third quarter set up UCLA's offense at USC's 33-yard line. UCLA was up only 24-21, and it was another time in the game, after USC's touchdown of the fumble recovery, in which the momentum was still very much up for grabs. That block, and subsequent touchdown, which put up UCLA 31-20, was probably the moment where UCLA seized the momentum. If you want to talk superheroes, Kendricks looked like one on that block, laying out and literally flying to make it. Kendricks, well, obviously gets a BRO Game Ball.

And if you're talking blocks, and seniors having their moment, there's Sheldon Price. in the fourth quarter, with USC attempting a field goal to keep their hopes alive, Price flew in from the left side of the line and laid out, doing his own superhero impression to block Heidari's attempt. It was another redeeming moment for a senior, and another second-half stop for the defense.

There are always iconic, Sports-Center worthy plays in every game, that capture the game in a microcosm. A few minutes before Price's block, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr preserved his image in history by shooting through USC's offensive line on a stunt, untouched, to sack and destroy Barkley, knocking him out of the game. That elicited perhaps one of the biggest, collective "Ooohs" ever from a Rose Bowl crowd.

Barr's confident, slow strut after that sack captured it all. UCLA had, for the first time in a long time, dominated USC. There were so many other liberating images that reflected that: After the game, the players out on the field jumping in the stands with the students; the UCLA fans staying in their seats and doing 8-claps; Mora, showing so much class, praising his players and hugging Lee; for the first time in a very long time, hearing the chant come from the stands of "the Rose Bowl" interspersed in the song from the UCLA band. You would have sworn that UCLA fans had forgotten it.

The pain from many memories are magically released. Twelve of the last thirteen games? Released. 50-0? Released.

The Monopoly? Released.

The corner is officially turned. I's a new era in UCLA football.

Bruin Report Online Story, November 23rd, 2021:

All week on 3-D, holographic Bruin Report Online we've been counting down the best wins in the UCLA-USC rivalry. One of the best, easily, was the game in 2012. In Jim Mora's first season at UCLA, he beat USC, 38-28, and it is commonly considered the transformative moment that began UCLA's present Golden Age of football. It was the win that turned the corner for UCLA's program, after a decade of misery, now having strung together ten 10+ win seasons in a row, three Rose Bowls and the one national championship. Mora, of course, has gone on to be elected President of the United States, being elected to that office directly from being UCLA's most successful football coach ever. It was the first victory in the series for UCLA's Heisman winner Brett Hundley, who never lost to USC before he left early for the NFL after his redshirt junior season. It also set USC on its course of struggling to regain its one-time luster, which seems so remotely long ago, back in the early 2000s. In fact, most recruits that both programs are recruiting now are too young to even remember USC being a dominant program. In the immortal words of the Los Angeles' Times Bill Plaschke, which finally came true, "It's a Bruin town," and it's been that way since that immortal game in 2012.

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