The second quarter had just started and here they were, USC's two-touchdown favorites, struggling as they trailed 14-7 against a crosstown rival UCLA team that came out and "punched them in the mouth," as USC Coach Clay Helton put it so elegantly.
So what did that feel like, one Trojan after another was asked.
It felt like we had this game just where we wanted it, was pretty much the answer we got from one USC player after another.
"We've been through a lot of adversity," Adoree' Jackson said after getting beat on a 56-yard touchdown pass by former Serra teammate Jordan Lasley that saw another Trojan, Ajene Harris, help rub the pair off an attempt at an interception and a tackle barely 90 seconds into the game.
"There goes the shutout," one Peristyle poster said. Indeed, that was quick.
"I thought I had it," Adoree' said. Instead, he'd been had. And yet, no biggie. This Trojans team had been down this road before. And figured out how to get back on track, they figured. Here we go again, they said. We've got this.
"Just like at Washington," said Sam Darnold after his ill-conceived throw that was easily intercepted and run back to the 10 setting up a second UCLA score as he turned himself into a defender to stop the Pick Six. A UCLA team that had had trouble scoring was racking up the points big-time. And the Trojans were looking more like the Keystone Kops.
And then, just as the Trojans had said, and promised, and much like at Washington, USC scored the game's final 29 points.
After six first quarter first downs, well into the fourth quarter, the Bruins had just seven -- only one more. After 47 first-quarter rushing yards, two quarters later they had 48 -- again, just one more.
After 98 first quarter passing yards, again into the fourth quarter, they had just 40 more.
"We just take it week by week," defensive captain Michael Hutchings said as he celebrated "my first win here" at the Rose Bowl. He said the reason USC players don't get all shook when things go bad is that they "see the results week by week." And they like the way that's going. And the way they've shown they can come back from a difficult place.
As they did with a 29-0 run over the final 43:32 to improve to 8-3 with their seventh straight win that finishes their Pac-12 season at 7-2. Will that be good enough for the Pac-12 South title. With Utah losing Saturday, USC now has to wait for the Colorado-Utah game that will kick off right as USC's Notre Dame game is finishing up next Saturday. A Utah win at Boulder will give the Trojans the South with the tiebreaker over Colorado after beating the Buffs earlier in the season.
"We still need a little help," Helton said. But after an 0-2 conference start, "we have set our mark at 7-2."
"They did a heck of a job," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said of USC. "We started out well but after the first quarter, we struggled to stay on the field, struggled to get off the field. They had 95 plays to our 50 something. (51 to be exact). They did a heck of a job. It was just a really tough and humbling night . . . This is the first game we've kind of not been in . . . They're a great football team."
And this was the first game Trojan senior wide receiver DeQuan Hampton got to show what he could do with JuJu Smith-Schuster battling several injury issues. All DeQuan did was add three catches for 51 yards -- two of them for touchdowns -- to JuJu's amazing eight for 76 despite his bumps and bruises headlined by a hip flexor that had JuJu in and out of the game, limping or not.
"I knew it was my time to step up," DeQuan said after a mere four catches for 22 yards and no touchdowns in USC's first 10 games. "My opportunity came. It was my time to do stuff for our team. JuJu went down and I felt bad for him."
Step up, he did, with a terrific leaping catch between and over a pair of Bruins in the end zone from 31 yards out that gave USC its first lead, 20-14, with 8:11 left in the first half. The next TD pass, from nine yards out, also came his way with 9:54 left in the third to put USC up 30-14.
"It felt great," DeQuan said, telling himself, "I'm on fire now."
"He's a big man," Darnold said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Compton Dominguez product, who looks more like a tight end. "When you get him out there like that, you throw it up and let him make a play on it," just the way the USC coaches preach it, Sam said. "It's great for me, great for the offense and great for the team."
Because it sends this message on a night when 11 Trojans caught the ball from him. Get open, or get into the end zone, and Sam will find you on a night when the redshirt freshman wasn't perfect but still hit on 25 of 36 for 267 yards and those two TDs to Hampton with two interceptions and just one sack.
"Sam Darnold is a heck of a player," Mora said. "He gave us fits. One thing we've done well this year is affecting quarterbacks. We just couldn't get him down."
Mora continued on Sam. "Against mobile quarterbacks this year, we have done a nice job. But a guy as mobile as he is, as heady as he is, keeping his eyes down the field the way that he can -- that's what makes him special. He can elude the rush, keep his eyes up and find receivers down the field. I've seen him on film and on TV and I had a lot of respect for him coming into this game. In person, he's truly a special one."
Against the nation's leading sacker, Tak McKinley in his senior night sendoff, Sam threw a shutout -- no sacks and just three tackles. That took the heart out of what has been a stalwart Bruin defense.
But in the end, this wasn't about Sam. It was about a USC defense that found itself after a quarter and discovered it could shut down UCLA -- if only it would, as it partnered with a USC offense that rolled up 527 yards in almost perfect balance -- 260 on the ground and 267 in the air.
The Bruins, meanwhile, finished with 266 yards, just about half of USC's total with a mere 55 on 19 rushing attempts in a game where USC out-first-downed the Bruins 31-10, while converting 12 of 21 third-down opportunities for a 43:47 to 16:13 time of possession edge.
With 121 yards on 18 carries [a 6.7 yards average], Ronald Jones showed with one brilliant bounce outside for a 60-yard opening score that USC badly needed that the Trojans were going to stay in this game no matter what. Ronald said that wasn't him so much as three Trojan blockers at the point of attack "who sealed the edge" and set him free.
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