Zach Banner remembered the 2014 UCLA game vividly. It had been eating at him everyday.
“Last year, that UCLA game was the worst game I’ve ever played in my life.”
That was all the motivation he needed when facing the Bruins Saturday at the Coliseum. With the Pac-12 South title on the line, Banner and the offensive line paved the road to Santa Clara. USC scored the final 20 points of the game to win the Crosstown Showdown for the first time in four years, 40-21.
The Trojans ran the ball 59 times for 235 yards, but more importantly salted the game away in the fourth quarter with two dominant drives on the ground. After having struggled to thoroughly put games away when they had early fourth-quarter opportunities in multiple games recently, the Trojans didn’t give UCLA an opportunity to mount a comeback.
Leading 33-21, USC took over with 13:04 remaining on the clock. The Trojans possessed the ball for all but 33 seconds for the rest of the game and only once did they have the audacity to throw the ball — a 7-yard play-action touchdown to Taylor McNamara.
Instead, Clay Helton put his faith in junior running back Justin Davis and his offensive line, particularly the right side where Banner was using his massive frame (listed at 6-foot-9, 360 pounds) to completely dominate the much smaller UCLA defensive linemen and linebackers.
An amped up Banner beseeched Helton to give him a chance to clear space for Davis.
Run the ball. Run the ball behind me,” Banner said. “I was just telling Coach, and whether he did or not, I’m supporting everything that he does, but I really wanted that to be on the shoulders of the right side.”
Helton heeded the advice.
The Trojans ran the ball, ran the ball and ran it some more. And each time they did, the offensive line’s intensity grew. Center Khaliel Rodgers, who was banged up and had to leave the game multiple times, pounded his chest in between plays and looked over to the sideline, yelling, “They’re weak!”
Banner screamed and hollered, repeatedly telling the UCLA defensive players, “You ain’t nothing!” along with some other choice words. Each time he let it be known that he was king of the line of scrimmage and each subsequent play, he backed it up, blowing defenders backwards.
Running often to the right behind Banner, Viane Talamaivao and a pulling Damien Mama from the left side, the Trojans rushed 17 times for 100 yards on the final two drives before taking a knee on the final two plays.
“You’ve just got to step up. I think myself and the rest of the o-line, I think we stepped up,” Banner said. “[Against UCLA] they haven’t been able to do that the past four years that I’ve been here. We just came out with a mindset that it’s going to be on us. We stepped up.”
Banner did that, plus more.
“It was rewarding to myself and to this team that I was able to help to get that win and seal that victory, especially at the end, and I feel great. I felt like I got my confidence back from last year. This was one of my best [games], but it might have been the best.”
For the totality of the game, Bruins defenders won the line-of-scrimmage battle against Banner only once. He routinely pushed linemen back four to five yards. At one point on USC’s final drive, after Banner shoved defensive end Takkarist McKinley six yards back and another five away from the play, McKinley turned to the UCLA sideline and threw his hands up in apparent exasperation.
The USC offensive line had deflated the will of the Bruins’ defensive line much the way UCLA had done to Trojans in the trenches the last few years during UCLA’s winning streak.
For Zach Banner and the Trojans, it was the ultimate rivalry redemption.