Caleb Williams reigned supreme, on a night at the Rose Bowl when that could be said of few others.
Touchdowns were traded back and forth. shifts too. Field goals were missing. Response after response escalated, in what was the most dizzying night of the crosstown rivalry in recent memory, a spinning roller coaster that No. 7 USC rode to a 48-45 win and a berth in Pac-12 play.
The Trojans’ star quarterback came to USC specifically for moments like this, with every box in the Rose Bowl sold out and the stakes for the season skyrocketing. He had already put up over 500 yards of attack. Now it’s up to him to dethrone #16 UCLA.
But when the ball landed on third down, the pocket immediately collapsed. The USC star was sacked by UCLA’s Laiatu Latu, and suddenly the Trojans’ hopes were uncertain as time went on for UCLA, trailing by three, on one final drive.
And that’s when an unlikely hero emerged to do what neither Williams nor any other Trojan could.
Corey Foreman came to USC from Corona Centennial High as the best recruit in the country, with the weight of expectations on his shoulders. A billboard boldly announced the arrival of the Five Stars, and his commitment is supposed to symbolize the turning tides in Trojan recruitment. But nothing in the first two seasons indicated a star in the making.
Until Saturday, when Furman found himself perfectly positioned for the biggest game of USC’s season, UCLA was trying to get a win. UCLA’s Dorian Thompson Robinson threw a desperate pass from third down toward receiver Kazmir Allen. Foreman went ahead and – in the tradition of the rivalry game – went down by intercepting the game seal that sent the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 2 in Las Vegas.
“You never know when your moment is going to be,” USC head coach Lincoln Riley said, “and he was prepared.”
Few would have expected this after last year’s game. Riley was hired just eight days after UCLA mopped the floor with USC, en route to a 4-8 Trojans finish. They have only lost once under their new coach.
“If you told me at the end of last season we were going to play for a championship this year, I would call you a dead liar,” said Kyle Ford, who had 73 yards and a touchdown on Saturday.
Thompson-Robinson went all out for UCLA’s second straight victory in the rivalry game. A year after blazing his way to crosstown fame, the Bruins quarterback was bloodied and bruised by a Trojan defense that proceeded to beat him into oblivion. With his throwing hand recording, Thompson-Robinson said he sometimes struggled to “get enough juice on the ball”.
“The kid is a warrior,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly. “Dorian literally leaves it on the field every time he plays.”
A fifth-year UCLA senior still accounted for six touchdowns and several big plays to boot in his final game against USC. But the Trojan defense forced him into four turnovers, the most critical of which came in the second half. A pick by Foreman and a fumble forced by defensive tackle Tyrone Talliny gave the Trojans enough breaks to escape with the win.
Their defense allowed over 500 receiving yards for the third time in five weeks. But their lead kept the Pac-12 ace to 95 rushing yards, the second time any team has held Zac Charbonnet under the century mark this season.
And as leaky as the UCLA defense was, the UCLA defense gave up more yards: 649, to be exact.
Of those, 503 belonged to Williams, the most for a cross-country competitor at 92 meets. The USC quarterback completed 32 of 43 passes for 470 yards and three total touchdowns (one on the ground) in a performance that will likely propel him toward the top of the Heisman run.
“You have to do everything against it,” Kelly said, “and we did.”
But it wasn’t enough, not with top scorer Jordan Addison blazing UCLA’s suspected secondary for 11 passes, 178 yards, and a touchdown. Or with Austin Jones, who runs smoothly for injured fullback Travis Day, notching 177 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Two touchdowns with just over two minutes to go in the third quarter as the Trojans took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish—despite three straight touchdowns by the Bruins down the stretch.
UCLA was on top throughout the first half, and missed opportunities by USC gave the Bruins every opportunity to put their mark on the game. A fourth and one stop red zone prevented USC from scoring on its opening drive. A botched field goal from kicker Dennis Lynch, his first of two goals of the day, left USC empty-handed again.
UCLA struck first with a methodical 14-play touchdown drive that capped off the first of Thompson-Robinson’s one-yard scoring runs. Then, Williams threw an interception, only his third of the season. Needing only one play for UCLA to respond, Thompson-Robinson found Michael Ezeki wide open for a 30-yard score, the first touchdown of the three tight end.
“I don’t think about the eyelid,” Riley said of that moment.
Regardless, it was hard to imagine a more nightmarish start for the Trojans. But with the offense still moving, it didn’t take long for them to make a comeback. Williams led a 10-play touchdown drive early in the second quarter, capping off a six-yard touchdown run for the score.
Soon after, it was UCLA’s turn to shoot her in the foot.
With a chance to score before halftime, Thompson-Robinson threw the first of his three interceptions. Kelly, who was going for a score before the break, elected to use his timeouts to give the Bruins a second chance.
A missed second kick by Lynch gave them just that. But the decision still backfired, as Thompson Robinson was intercepted again. Given another opportunity, Lynch did not miss a 49-yard kick to cut USC’s deficit to 21-20 at halftime.
The Trojans didn’t miss many opportunities from there. USC scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives to open the second half. Williams came alive. The defense forced turnovers at the right time.
And when it mattered most, it was the unlikely Trojans who finished the job, stealing not only the victory bell from their rivals, but also a chance at something much greater.
“You can tell those Bears we beat them,” said center Brett Nealon. “So they can say whatever they want, do whatever they want, but we run LA, so I’m happy.”
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