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USC’s Allen Bradford finishes with a place in Trojans lore

Allen Bradford tried hard to find the words.

After five years of frustration, USC’s senior tailback finished his career with a performance that will become part of the lore of the USC- UCLA rivalry.

Bradford rushed for 212 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a long touchdown pass play to lead USC to a 28-14 victory over the Bruins on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

“I couldn’t have dreamed it, but I’m glad it happened,” Bradford said. “To go down in history like this, just to top off my career, I couldn’t ask for a better stage.”

Bradford was a surprise star.

He had two of the biggest rushing performances of the season in the Trojans’ first five games but had largely become a forgotten man in the tailback rotation.

The hurt, however, was nowhere to be seen on Bradford’s face as coaches, teammates and USC Athletic Director Pat Haden approached him on the sideline and wrapped their arms around the former Colton High star as the final seconds ticked down on the clock and on Bradford’s career.

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“I have so much respect for the guy,” Haden said. “He prepared every day, didn’t complain and every time he got his opportunity he made the most of it.

“It would have been really easy to do things different, at least with his attitude. ... What a way to go out.”

Bradford was a standout linebacker and running back at Colton, but played tailback at USC at the behest of former coach Pete Carroll. But Bradford never was able to rise to the top of the depth chart.

This season looked as if it would be his time to shine after he finished spring practice as the No. 1 tailback. But coaches tabbed junior Marc Tyler as the starter for the opener. Bradford ran for 131 yards against Minnesota and 223 against Washington two weeks later, but then saw his playing time diminish.

He did not carry the ball against Arizona or in the Trojans’ loss last week against Notre Dame.

But Coach Lane Kiffin started Bradford and put the ball in his hands 28 times against the Bruins.

“Allen was the centerpiece,” Kiffin said, adding “I just thought, ‘If we’re going to go down, let’s go down with a guy who’s been here a long time. A guy who’s done a lot of good things for us.’ ”

Kiffin reiterated Saturday that Bradford’s opportunities had been limited in previous games because of ball security issues and lack of production in late-season carries.

After Bradford’s performance Saturday, which included a 73-yard touchdown run and a 7.6-per-carry average, Kiffin was asked if he regretted not playing Bradford more.

“I don’t know if regret is the right word,” said Kiffin, whose team finished 8-5. “Who knows what that would have been like?”

Bradford set the tone for the Trojans’ victory during a team meeting Friday night, when seniors addressed their teammates.

“He faced adversity here and how [he] responded shows the character of the man,” senior fullback Stanley Havili said. “He’s done an awesome job being a leader, regardless of the situation.”

On the field after the game, Bradford thanked running backs coach Kennedy Pola and Kiffin and also praised his teammates, his father Keith and the rest of his family and friends for encouraging him to persevere.

“Every rock that someone threw at me,” he said, “I just used it as a steppingstone.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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