In the moment it took Eric McNeal to leap high and tip a pass, the fate of two college football rivals hung dramatically in the balance.
Underdog UCLA was holding a slim lead over a USC team driving toward the end zone.
And then, with just over a minute left on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, McNeal jumped and got his hand on USC quarterback John David Booty’s pass.
With a sold-out crowd of 90,622 holding its collective breath, the linebacker stretched his arms and cradled the ball for an interception that clinched UCLA’s stunning 13-9 upset over the second-ranked Trojans in the 76th meeting between the cross-town rivals.
“I know how important this win is to the Bruin family,” UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said, beaming. “I know that it’s been a long time.”
With a swarming defense, a just-good-enough offense led by quarterback Patrick Cowan and two field goals by Justin Medlock, the Bruins ended seven seasons of USC domination and knocked the Trojans out of an expected date with top-ranked Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
The Bruins, who finished 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Pacific 10 Conference, are bound for the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco. But Dorrell, who has lived in the shadow of USC Coach Pete Carroll, had something else in mind after the most important victory of his four-year tenure.
“I’m thinking about getting back on top in Los Angeles,” Dorrell said.
He was there Saturday night, bathed in cheers from the joyous crowd.
USC had already clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl by winning its fifth consecutive Pac-10 title. But the Trojans had no intention of returning to Pasadena, where they also lost last season’s BCS title game against Texas.
They will return, however, on New Year’s Day thanks to a Bruins team that had a clear plan for victory on a sunny afternoon in the Arroyo Seco.
“We had a great chance to finish this thing off right and we just didn’t get it done,” Carroll said.
UCLA had a lot to do with that, pressuring Booty throughout the game and limiting the Trojans to a season-low 55 rushing yards.
Bruins defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, who coached under Carroll with the New England Patriots and at USC, confounded the Trojans, who failed to score at least 20 points for the first time since the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl.
USC, which was penalized nine times for 55 yards, converted only six of 17 third-down plays and one of three fourth-down situations.
“They stuffed us, flat out,” said Booty, who completed 23 of 39 passes for 274 yards but was held without a touchdown pass for the first time this season and was sacked twice. “I don’t like to admit that, but that’s what happened. We weren’t getting anything going.”
Cowan was, running through the Trojans defense in the first half for the Bruins’ only touchdown and avoiding a costly interception that might have opened the door for the Trojans.
Cowan, who completed 12 of 21 for 114 yards, gained 55 yards in four carries during the 91-yard, first-quarter scoring drive that he capped with a one-yard run for a 7-0 lead. It marked the first time the Bruins were ahead of the Trojans in Carroll’s six seasons.
USC had pulled ahead by halftime with a safety and a one-yard touchdown run by C.J. Gable for a 9-7 lead.
Carroll said he wasn’t worried.
“I thought we’d come out the second half and fight our way just like we always do,” he said.
But UCLA would not relent.
After the Bruins stopped the Trojans on downs twice in the third quarter, Ryan Graves returned a punt 24 yards to the Bruins’ 44-yard line. Cowan completed passes to four receivers during a drive that culminated with Medlock’s 22-yard field goal for a 10-9 lead with 5:45 left in the quarter.
USC had a chance to take back the lead after nose tackle Sedrick Ellis recovered a ball Cowan threw to fullback Michael Pitre that was ruled a lateral.
But the Bruins defense came up big again on the first play of the fourth quarter by stopping Gable on a sweep on fourth-and-two at the Bruins’ 36.
“They were all right there,” Gable said of a gang of Bruins tacklers led by cornerback Alterraun Verner and linebacker Christian Taylor. “They got there before I even got the ball.”
UCLA took over and began to eat the clock during a 47-yard, 13-play drive that consumed more than six minutes and ended with Medlock’s 31-yard field goal for a 13-9 lead with 8:49 to play.
Now it was just a matter of holding on for a Bruins team that suffered a crushing last-minute defeat at Notre Dame on Oct. 21.
The team traded possessions before USC got the ball back at its 29 with 5:52 left in the game.
With the crowd on its feet, Booty drove the Trojans toward the north end zone, completing passes to Steve Smith, tight end Fred Davis and Chris McFoy during a 13-play march.
On third down at the 18-yard line, Booty dropped back to pass, looking again for Smith.
Five weeks ago, Oregon State tipped away Booty’s last-second pass to Dwayne Jarrett on a two-point conversion attempt and the Trojans lost, 33-31.
This time, Booty looked for Smith, but McNeal got in the way.
“The coaches always tell us, get your hands up, and that’s what I did,” McNeal said. “I got both hands up and got it with my right one, I think.”
Booty held his breath.
“I was just praying, ‘Bounce, bounce one way or another,’” he said.
But McNeal kept his eye on the ball.
“I looked up and saw it right above my head and just grabbed it,” he said.
UCLA, however, still had to withstand one last scare after going three and out and giving USC the ball at the Trojans 12 with four seconds left.
Booty dropped back and lofted a pass deep into Bruins territory where it was tipped into the air.
“I’m thinking ‘get that thing down,’ ” Dorrell said.
USC receiver Patrick Turner, running in full stride, got his hands on the ball but could not hang on as the clock expired.
The Bruins wasted no time celebrating.
“We tried to prove people wrong all year,” safety Dennis Keyes said. “We slipped up a couple times, but we came out and we finished it off today.”
Offensive lineman Shannon Tevaga said it might be the beginning of a winning streak against the Trojans.
“This one was for the coaches and the seniors,” he said. “It’s our turn to start one.”
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By the numbers
0-2 - USC’s record in the Rose Bowl in 2006
9-7 - UCLA’s record against USC the last 16 years
63 - Games since USC last failed to score at least 20 points (Dec. 25, 2001, a 10-6 loss to Utah in Las Vegas Bowl)
77 - Games since USC was shut out in the second half (Oct. 28, 2000, a 28-16 loss to Cal)
55 - Rushing yards for UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan in 10 carries
55 - Rushing yards for USC in 29 carries
12 - Total margin of defeat in USC’s four losses in the last 59 games
66-9 - Difference in USC’s scoring against UCLA the last two years
63 - Yards of punt by UCLA’s Aaron Perez in the final seconds
A look at some of the big surprises in the history of the storied rivalry between USC and UCLA:
1959 -- UCLA 10, No. 4 USC 3
* Trojans, ineligible for bowls because of NCAA sanctions, came in 8-0; Bruins were 3-3-1.
1960 -- USC 17, No. 11 UCLA 6
* Trojans, in John McKay’s first season as coach, came in 3-5; Bruins were 5-1-1.
1971 -- UCLA 7, No. 15 USC 7
* Bruins came in 2-7; Trojans were 6-4 and had won four in a row.
1989 -- UCLA 10, No. 8 USC 10
* Trojans were 8-2 and Rose Bowl-bound; Bruins came in 3-7.
2006 -- UCLA 13, No. 2 USC 9
* Bruins, 6-5 coming in, deny Trojans a spot in the national championship game.
Los Angeles Times
KEYS TO THE GAME
Gary Klein’s keys to the game and how the teams fared:
1. A leading role. UCLA put constant pressure on USC quarterback John David Booty, knocking him off balance, forcing him to hurry throws and sacking him twice. End Bruce Davis had one of the sacks and harassed Booty throughout the game. Linebacker Eric McNeal’s interception clinched the victory. UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan limited his mistakes and scrambled at key moments to lead the Bruins.
2. Imagine that. UCLA eschewed trickery and played hard-hitting football. The Bruins carried out defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker’s game plan to near perfection. Taking a cue from Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, who scrambled for a 60-yard run against the Trojans last week, Bruins Coach Karl Dorrell told Cowan to run if he saw daylight. UCLA never gave USC a chance to show off new wrinkles.
3. Turnovers. McNeal’s interception of a pass he tipped ended USC’s chance for victory. UCLA lost the ball once when nose tackle Sedrick Ellis recovered a ball thrown to fullback Michael Pitre that officials ruled a lateral. But the Bruins ended the threat by stopping running back C.J. Gable on a fourth down at the UCLA 36.