USC took on crosstown rival UCLA this past Saturday night to guarantee their spot in Friday’s Pac-12 Championship game. It was the 90th meeting between the two schools as they once again battled for “The Victory Bell.” Coming into the game, the Trojans had won four of their last five meetings against the Bruins, including last year which saw USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throw for 515 yards and four touchdowns in the 56-35 win. This year, the two teams donned their home uniforms and engaged in an epic shootout that saw USC come out victorious 43-38 after rallying from a 28-10 third-quarter deficit, ringing the bell once again. Here is my breakdown of the game.
The offense stuffed the stat sheet with 43 points, six touchdowns and 444 total yards of offense. However, the start of the game did not indicate an offensive explosion for USC as Slovis started the game with an ugly interception as he threw the ball right to UCLA defensive back Quentin Lake on their sixth offensive snap. USC did not score until midway through the second quarter on their fifth possession. From there, they scored on all but two possessions (not including the end of half possession) the rest of the way. This was needed as the Trojans trailed most of the game.
Slovis rebounded from his early interception with another spectacular performance. He finished with 344 yards on 30 of 47 attempts and five touchdown passes. He did not shy away from slinging the ball across the yard to his top three favorite targets. To kick off the scoring, Slovis found Drake London down the seem who weaved his way through the UCLA secondary for the touchdown. Slovis is known for his fantastic pocket presence but in the fourth quarter, he rolled out and threw across his body to London in traffic for the touchdown to give USC the lead 36-35. London is the leading receiver on the team this season and these two touchdowns emphasize how great their connection is.
Tyler Vaughns has been the least impressive of the top three receivers this season but against UCLA, he led the team in receiving yards with 128 and a touchdown on eight receptions. He caught a 38-yard touchdown pass in the endzone to cut UCLA’s third-quarter lead to 11 points and caught a 35-yard pass in double coverage on USC’s final drive to set up the game-winning touchdown. The fact he came through in key situations in this game only bodes well for the passing attack going forward.
For Amon-Ra St. Brown, it was an up-and-down night for him. He let a pass from Slovis zip through his hands late in the third quarter, allowing Stephan Blaylock to come up with the interception. However, like his four-touchdown game against Washington State last week, he was dependable in the redzone. He caught a three-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and caught the game-winning eight-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left to give USC the win.
For the first time this season, USC had a rusher eclipse 100 yards rushing for the game as Vavae Malepeai ran for 110 yards on 19 carries and one touchdown (scored early in the fourth quarter to cut UCLA’s lead 35-30). The running game finding success was huge for USC offensively as it provided enough balance for the passing game to gash the UCLA secondary.
Unlike the offense, the defense struggled mightily for most of the game, allowing the Bruins to gain 549 yards of total offense. They allowed UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson to throw for 364 yards and the backfield to rush for 185 yards. Once again, the issue that plagued them against the Arizona schools reared its ugly head as the USC defenders could not tackle UCLA ball carriers in open space and stop them once they got past the defensive front. All five Bruin touchdowns were over 10 yards long and three of them were over 20 yards. This was especially a problem for the first half and the beginning of the second half as they allowed the Bruins to jump out to a 28-10 lead.
However, the defense stepped up when it needed the most. They held the Bruins’ offense to three points in the fourth quarter and intercepted Thompson-Robinson twice. Isaiah Pola-Moa got one in the second quarter and Talanoa Hufanga picked up his fourth of the season in the fourth quarter. While Hufanga’s pick-six was called back due to a penalty, it set up London’s second touchdown of the game. The defense stepped up but getting gashed by another mediocre Pac-12 South team is concerning, especially considering they will face Oregon on Friday in the Pac-12 Championship game. If they do not tackle ball carriers in open space, it could spell major trouble going forward.
Like the season opener against Arizona State, the special teams unit set up the game-winning drive as Gary Bryant Jr. returned a kickoff 56 yards to set USC in UCLA territory. St. Brown scored the winning touchdown two plays later. With Bryant Jr. being a freshman, expect more plays like this from him in the future. Also, the punt-return team made another huge play as they forced UCLA punter Luke Akers to hold up his punt, causing him to run and fumble the ball out of bounds. USC took over deep in UCLA territory and score to cut the deficit 28-23.
Freshman kicker Parker Lewis continues to be inconsistent as he made a 42-yard field goal but missed a 45-yard one. On the final drive, it was best the offense scored themselves so they didn’t have to rely on Lewis. Lewis has been solid and has potential, but he has been shaky the last couple of games with missing makeable field goals.
USC, as the winners of the Pac-12 South, will face the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship game on Friday. The Washington Huskies actually won the Pac-12 North but were forced to miss the game due to positive COVID-19 cases within the program.