UCLA puts up a fight, but USC gets the victory in rivalry game

Late in a strange rivalry game, when neither USC nor UCLA was playing particularly well, Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen heaved up an offering into the light fog over the Coliseum.

Rosen had launched missiles all game, mostly successfully, but when this one came down to earth, USC cornerback Jack Jones was in position. He batted the ball away ... only for it to deflect into fellow cornerback Iman Marshall’s helmet ... and right back into the hands of UCLA receiver Jordan Lasley.

Officially, it was a 43-yard reception. Unofficially, it felt like an omen. No. 11 USC had violated an important rivalry-game dictum: Never let the underdog hang around.

Now it might lead to disaster.

“I really thought we won this game,” Rosen would say later. As he spoke, the victory bell sounded nearby. It was coming out of USC’s locker room.

The Trojans could credit their escape from catastrophe, and their 28-23 victory Saturday, to their reaction to the catch-turned-omen.

On a stand near the goal line, USC did not break.

On third down, Rosen had to check down to Austin Roberts. Safety Chris Hawkins and nickel back Ajene Harris swarmed for the tackle. Instead of trying for a fourth-and-four attempt with about 10 minutes left, down by seven, UCLA settled for a mere field goal, “because it was the right decision,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

USC marched down the field on the next drive. A two-yard Ronald Jones II score gave the Trojans an 11-point cushion.

It was a fitting performance amid two head-scratching seasons.

UCLA couldn’t support Rosen’s 421-yard performance, couldn’t escape its self-inflicted mistakes and couldn’t give a big boost of support for Mora while some call for his job.

“Incredibly disappointing,” Mora said. “It’s been a tough season.”

USC, as it has for much of the season, played sloppily. Its offense was lurchy. Yet it won its 10th game, and the Trojans can now turn their full attention to the Pac-12 championship game in two weeks against Stanford or Washington State.

“I don’t think any game is perfect,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “But I think our kids did what was needed.”

In the first duel between two of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Rosen dazzled. He completed 32 of 52 passes for three touchdowns, but he also had one interception and a fumble.

Almost half of his yards went to Lasley, who finished with 204 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs, on 10 catches. He now has two multiple-touchdown games in his career. Both have come against USC.

USC quarterback Sam Darnold completed 17 of 28 for 264 yards with a rushing touchdown and an interception. After the game, as he led the band, USC’s student section chanted at him, “One more year!”

“I’m not going to say anything about that last part,” Darnold said. But he called the opportunity to face Rosen, who would probably be the other top quarterback taken if both decide to enter the NFL draft, “awesome.”

Rosen’s deep strikes let UCLA hang around for four quarters. So did a surprisingly ineffective USC rushing game.

Entering the game, UCLA’s defense gave up, on average, 302 yards rushing per game. It was the worst rush defense in the country.

Still, USC (10-2, 8-2 in Pac-12) rushed for only 146 yards — worse than any team has managed against UCLA (5-6, 3-5) all season.

Jones finished with 122 yards and two scores in 28 carries and two touchdowns.

Both offenses received an incomplete grade early. As in, neither could complete a drive.

USC had five drives in the first half. Four times, it marched into UCLA territory. It scored only once, on a two-yard Jones touchdown run at the end of the first quarter.

USC’s first touchdown was a special-teams gem.

Ajene Harris pretended to field a UCLA punt near one sideline. UCLA swarmed. Problem was, the ball was actually punted to the other side, where Michael Pittman Jr. had casually retreated. He jaunted an easy 72 yards for the touchdown.

UCLA’s offense fared no better than USC’s. The Bruins managed one early touchdown pass to Lasley but also forayed to USC’s 39-yard line, 21-yard line and 17-yard line and netted zero points on those drives.

“We missed a field goal, two turnovers, that’s like nine points right there and we lost by five,” Rosen said. “We had another touchdown called back on the chop [block]. It’s just frustrating, really frustrating.”

He called it “stupid mistakes.”

The failure to finish drives created an unusual midgame malaise: The high-powered offenses went almost 29 minutes without scoring a point.

Rosen had one final flourish near the end of the game. He responded to Jones’ late touchdown with another postcard-pretty pass to Lasley in the corner of the end zone for a 27-yard score

But it was too late. Less than three minutes remained. USC needed one first down to run out the clock. This time UCLA’s run defense could not hold.

As USC lined up to take a knee, the fight song was playing, and the players on the field were dancing and exhorting the crowd to cheer.

Most of the 82,407 in attendance were too busy exhaling.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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