It would have been easy to accept if, when the two teams lined up, USC clearly out-played UCLA and won the game.
But that wasn't the case. In fact, you could make the case that UCLA outplayed USC in many aspects.
It would definitely be difficult to make the case that USC clearly out-played UCLA. USC totaled 336 yards an UCLA 322. Each team averaged 3.8 yards per carry.
And it was a game teetering on the bizarre, from the way it ended to some strange referee calls, especially with a mystery whistle on the "lateral."
UCLA's defense played one of its best games of the season, holding USC's offense for more or less most of the game. What was most impressive was seemingly making very early adjustments that succeeded in shutting down USC's powerful running game. It would have been completely reasonable, if you would have used the season as a reference, for USC's running game to slice through UCLA's defense early, but it didn't. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough called an excellent game, many times having his players in perfect position to make tackles, seemingly knowing USC's offensive scheme very well, and mixing in good blitzes and run blitzes. Throughout the season UCLA had been notorious for allowing an opposing offense to basically cut them up for a quarter, or a half, and then for the defense to finally make some effective adjustments. It didn't take that long in this instance, maybe one or two USC possessions, without the Trojans getting points out of it.
UCLA's offense, even though it was inept, it seemingly was capable of gaining enough yards to win the game since USC's offense was pretty much at least as inept.
So, as we said in the preview, the keys to the game were going to be UCLA generating enough offense to maybe get a score or two, and win the battle of field position. It was pretty evident UCLA was capable of doing this.
Oh, yeah, there was that other key to the game of…
Eliminating Turnovers and Mistakes.
The turnovers and mistakes, as they always do, did them in. What was particularly unnerving was they were easily avoidable, and not typical.
The first interception thrown by Kevin Prince that resulted in a pick-six was one of those playcalls that is completely inconceivable. Within UCLA's very conservative game plan in this game, it doesn't make much logical sense to call a tight end seam route, a throw that is a low-percentage and high-risk. At the most, you get eight yards on it, while you're risking a throw into the heart of coverage. Prince, too, had thrown an interception on the same call earlier in the season. It'd be interesting to see some kind of statistics on that play, how many yards it averages when successful compared with how many incompleted passes and interceptions it yields.
The second Prince interception we have to blame on a very irresponsible personal foul by senior captain Logan Paulsen. On the first series of the second half, with UCLA down just 7-0 and very much in the game, Paulsen chucked a USC defender after the whistle for a 15-yard penalty. That put UCLA's struggling offense in a 1st-and-25 hole which, naturally, led to a third-and-long in which Prince had to scramble. On the scramble he was thrown down on the tackle and hurt his shoulder. He was wincing on the sideline when throwing, then went in again, obviously unable to throw, and threw a very awkward, inaccurate pass for an easy interception. That interception gave USC's defense a 24-yard field, which they drove for a touchdown to go up 14-0.
You might say it's a stretch to blame that on Paulsen's personal foul. But without that penalty, UCLA never would have been in that position, and the play that got Prince injured never would have taken place. So, it's not a stretch. You can also blame the UCLA coaches, if you'd like, for allowing the injured Prince to return to the field when he was clearly injured.
Then, there's Nelson Rosario's fumble, which probably took 3 points off the board for UCLA. We'll even excuse this turnover, since it was committed by a 19-year-old in a hugely competitive game. But the other two turnovers, essentially committed by the coaching staff and a senior captain, were entirely avoidable.
If UCLA plays a clean game in the first half, at half time the score would have been 3-0. But even concede Rosario's fumble and it's 0-0.
So, UCLA was capable of winning this game. It followed its game plan, and it more or less worked. And if not for a questionable playcall which put its quarterback in a position to fail and a bonehead personal foul it very well might have had a different result.
So, despite wanting to blame the refs, or get riled up over how the game ended, this is where the real blame should be leveled.
As we said above, give UCLA's defense credit, and also credit UCLA's offensive line. For most of the game, UCLA's quarterbacks had time to throw, against the best pass-rushing defense in the conference. In fact, once it was pretty clear that UCLA's offensive line could give Prince time, it might have been effective to try to throw the ball down the field a bit more.
UCLA might not have done that merely because it couldn't get any play-making out of its receivers. Taylor Embree and Terrence Austin were non-existent, and Rosario showed he still has a long ways to go if he hopes to compete in this kind of environment. He dropped a couple of passes and coughed up that fumble on a critical drive.
But even if you don't second-guess the overall conservative game plan, UCLA could have won this game with its conservative game plan.
That pretty much sums of the game in a nutshell.
Which leads us to the other stuff.
I don't think that placing blame for the ugliness at the end is relevant, but I know many readers are going to think I shirked by responsibility if I didn't address it.
So here it goes:
It started with Neuheisel calling the timeout, which, according to USC, led to the Trojans calling the bomb. But it's funny how maybe a last gasp (calling a timeout) in a game like this is then used as an excuse for a classless move, which was to throw the bomb.
But even so, we're big boys, and I'm sure UCLA's coaching staff feel the same way. We'll take it, and take the consequences.
But then what's being missed is how USC's sideline flooded out onto the field to celebrate the touchdown, which should have been a penalty. When UCLA's sideline then started answering it and advancing past the middle of the field, and a referee tripped trying to contain Reggie Carter, of course UCLA is seen as being at fault at this point.
So, that leads us to the seeming pro-USC bias that many UCLA fans believe permeated this game. The "lateral" call was inexplicable, admittedly. It was made when UCLA was still in the game, and approaching at least field-goal position. A score at that point would have been significant. The refs, after the review, said there was a whistle after the lateral, but the replay didn't reveal a whistle. In fact, the whistles were pretty easily heard at the end of the play . So, UCLA was supposedly given a choice: to re-do the play or take it minus five yards. But those weren't the options actually offered. It was to either repeat second down, so it'd be second and 9, or take a five-yard gain, making it third and 4. The second and I resulted in an interception by Kevin Craft on the next play.
Now, I'm not one of the conspiracy theorists that believe USC has traditionally benefitted from bias referees. But regardless of whether the options offered to Neuheisel were correct, the fact that the refs somehow heard an inadvertent whistle, when even television commentators and USC homers Petros Papadakis and Barry Thompkins confessed they didn't, is a bit dismaying.
But to even slightly blame the game's outcome on the refs, or to point fingers at Pete Carroll for throwing the bomb, is displaced blame. The blame for the game, again, if you're placing blame, are the two bonehead UCLA plays.
In a way, though, all of this sentiment – the increased Pete-Carroll hatred and the USC-gets-biased-treatment -- might be constructive for the UCLA program to regain its stature as a power program.
After the dust of the bizarre game settled, there was one thing that was pretty clear through the haze: While the USC program can celebrate its victory, in reality, the game was a clear chink in the USC armor that had been exposed this season already by blow-out losses to Oregon and Stanford. This was by no means a dominant victory and, as we said, it's easy to make a case that UCLA very well could have won this game if not for the twin bonehead plays.
Now, of course, UCLA and Rick Neuheisel could have really parlayed a victory over USC. The 7-5 record would have clearly got the team into a bowl game and Neuheisel would have so much more to sell to recruits.
But playing USC pretty evenly in this game is going to be plenty to sell for Neuheisel. UCLA is re-building its program and USC is supposed to be on top of the mountain -- and they played evenly. USC, truly, should have trounced UCLA in this game, given the talent it has on its roster compared to the Bruins.
But it didn't.
If you're a recruit interested in both USC and UCLA, you had to look on this game – and USC's season -- as an indication that USC's domination isn't what it once was, and Neuheisel would easily be able to convince you that the tide is changing.
With the win, USC's dominance in the crosstown rivalry is still alive. But it's not thriving. In fact, this game could be characterized as a reflection that it could be on its way to life support.
The way the game ended was unfortunate. It will probably cause some additional fights around the water cooler this week. Maybe some break-ups, or even a divorce or two.
The arguments that will result are pretty irrelevant, though. Whether it was unclassy of Pete Carroll to throw that late touchdown or not doesn't really matter. Does it say something about Carroll? Is he a hypocrite after he confronted Stanford's Jim Harbaugh for doing the same thing Carroll? Was it Neuheisel's fault for calling the timeout? It doesn't really matter.
No one will win the argument of what was appropriate or not. USC fans will have their take and UCLA fans will have theirs, but it won't affect the rivalry on the field.
But what could possibly be the real, substantive result of this game?
Pete Carroll's actions might only make UCLA get further dedicated and dug in to end the monopoly. That's the kind of thing that you could see inspire Neuheisel even more to knock out USC. It's the kind of thing that a 20-year-old UCLA player could use as motivation to get up at 5:00 a.m. in the off-season for another workout, or stay in the weight room a little longer.
And I'm sure Carroll would respond with: Bring it on.
So, for a fairly boring game all in all, one with very few implications in terms of the season, rankings, bowls, etc., it's interesting that it could be a game that ultimately further entrenched the UCLA/USC rivalry so vehemently, and the competitiveness between Neuheisel and Carroll.