At the end of a long, brutal fight, Pete Carroll extended an olive branch.
Rick Neuheisel poked him with it.
In the final seconds of a game that had already been decided, Pete Carroll made a common gesture to save players while allowing UCLA to save face.
Rick Neuheisel swung at him with it.
For more than three hours, the two disillusioned locals played through a season’s worth of problems to produce a tough and classy crosstown rivalry game.
Then, acting like a brat, Rick Neuheisel changed all of it.
In a classic turned catfight, Saturday night was all right for spiting, a snubbing becoming a taunting becoming a touchdown that nearly led to a brawl.
Yeah, only one of the nuttiest 54-second stretches in the last 79 years.
The final score was USC 28, UCLA 7, but only after Damian Williams caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barkley in the final minute that symbolized an angry Carroll’s jab into the chest of an unappreciative Neuheisel.
Said Carroll: “It was the heart of the competitor just battling.”
Said Neuheisel: “People can make their own conclusions.”
The conclusion here was that Neuheisel’s pettiness in the face of Carroll’s professionalism was wrong.
In the end, while his players deserved better, Neuheisel got exactly what he deserved.
The strife began with USC leading, 21-7, and holding the ball at the UCLA 48-yard line with 54 seconds left.
Carroll ordered quarterback Matt Barkley to take a knee. This normally signifies a winning team refusing to pile up the score, a winning team willing to gently end the game.
But Neuheisel refused to accept the gesture by calling a timeout.
The baffled Coliseum crowd booed. The stunned USC players howled.
Yes, it was only the first of UCLA’s three timeouts, meaning if USC kept taking a knee, Neuheisel could have kept calling them and eventually gained possession of the ball with about two seconds remaining.
Down two touchdowns with two seconds left.
Was that worth a timeout, Coach?
“I had three timeouts left,” Neuheisel said later simply.
Carroll wasn’t thrilled. He immediately forgot the knee and went for the throat.
On the next play, Barkley threw deep to Williams, who sprinted down the middle past the UCLA defenders to catch the ball inside the 10-yard line and streak into the end zone for extra touchdown.
In any other situation, this would be considered piling on.
But on Saturday, it was simply getting even.
By calling a timeout, Neuheisel was making it clear that he did not agree with Carroll’s decision to take a knee.
So Carroll said fine, he would keep playing.
If Carroll had ordered the Trojans to continue to take a knee in the wake of Neuheisel’s timeout, it would have symbolized a lack of respect for his players.
Neuheisel had a choice. His decision left Carroll with no choice.
“He called timeout, nothing wrong with that, just compete,” Carroll said of Neuheisel. “Then the play came up on the headset and I thought, great freaking call.”
The crowd erupted in the loudest cheers of the night. The USC players began jumping up and down in their biggest show of emotion.
The Trojans were soon jumping on the field, closer and closer to midfield, and the beaten Bruins jogged out to meet them, and a referee was steamrollered by a Bruins player, and a fight nearly erupted.
Neuheisel publicly scolded everyone, saying, “The bottom line is that just doesn’t belong in these games. There’s too much pride and it doesn’t belong.”
But don’t blame the players. They are just big kids just trying to deal with their coach’s little games.
“It was just the heat of the moment, it’s the rivalry pretty much,” the Bruins’ Rahim Moore said. “I was so mad and I seldom get mad. But you can’t get mad at them. They won.”
When the game finally ended, Carroll and Neuheisel met for only a moment at midfield before parting ways.
Said Carroll: “We’ve been saying it for years, living it for years . . . just compete.”
Said Neuheisel: “I don’t forget very much.”
Here’s guessing he’ll want to forget this one.
On this night, the brat who called a timeout needed to be put in one.