In 2006, UCLA turned it around against USC, then went into reverse

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UCLA linebacker Eric McNeal jumped and the football monopoly in Los Angeles shuddered.

When McNeal came down with the football in the final minute of the 2006 UCLA- USC game, the jolt of his interception did more for the Bruins than just clinch a 13-9 upset that cost the second-ranked Trojans a spot in the national-title game.

By many accounts, it tilted the football landscape from South Los Angeles toward Westwood.

“I definitely felt that way,” McNeal said. “This was going to help us get top-notch recruits. We showed we could beat those guys. We felt we turned it around.”


David Carter, a UCLA defensive tackle who was a freshman that season, said, “We felt like we got our swag back. We shook their foundation.”

But it held together, with barely a crack.

Only a year after that victory and the high expectations it generated, UCLA fired coach Karl Dorrell following a 6-6 regular season.

Rick Neuheisel, Dorrell’s successor, has fared no better.

The Bruins have had national top-15 recruiting classes the last three seasons, and can claim the gap has closed. But more than anything UCLA has done, the Trojans’ NCAA probation is what has brought the rival programs closer.

UCLA and USC play Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins are 4-7 overall, 2-6 in Pacific 10 Conference play. USC is 7-5 and 4-4, its worst record since 2001, former coach Pete Carroll’s first season.

But even in 2001, USC beat UCLA — 27-0 — and that 2006 game is the Trojans’ only loss to the Bruins in the last 11 games in the series.

Since Dorrell said “I’m thinking about getting back on top in Los Angeles” in the postgame giddiness of 2006, USC has won three straight over UCLA by the combined score of 80-21.


“That was a great win for Karl and the program,” former UCLA coach Terry Donahue said.

But why haven’t the Bruins capitalized? “My guess is we haven’t had the players,” he said. “You have to have the players to overtake USC.”

Since the 2006 game, USC has a 40-12 record with three Rose Bowl victories. UCLA is 21-29 and is 1-2 in lower-tier bowl games.

The Bruins have struggled to beat anyone in the Pac-10, let alone USC, the last three seasons. Of UCLA’s eight conference victories, three are against Pac-10 doormat Washington State and another came against a winless Washington team in 2008.

“We thought we flipped it around in 2006,” UCLA senior tackle Micah Kia said. “We set a bar that day and, for whatever reason, we have had more downs than ups since then.”

It was easier for the UCLA marketing department to proclaim that the college football monopoly was over in Los Angeles than it was for Neuheisel to actually achieve it.

“I think it comes down to the depth in the programs,” Neuheisel said. “You don’t have to look very hard. Look at the NFL draft choices [the last three seasons] and you can draw your own conclusions.”


USC has had 33 players taken in the last three drafts, UCLA seven.

Those types of truths speak louder than even the Rose Bowl crowd after the 13-9 upset.

“I remember how loud it was,” McNeal said. “My teammates’ lips were moving, but I couldn’t hear the words.

“Certainly everyone thought we turned things around. The way we won that game had people thinking we did. It’s a tough thing to accept that it didn’t happen.”

USC players didn’t know what the fuss was about.

“Yeah, we were mad we lost, but we didn’t lose who we were,” said USC tailback C.J. Gable, who scored the Trojans’ only touchdown in the game. “We were like, ‘Next year we’re going to come out and it’s going to be even worse’ [for UCLA than it was previously]. And that’s what we did.”

USC beat the Bruins, 24-7, in 2007, closing out Dorrell’s UCLA coaching career.

“I think it slipped before Karl,” Donahue said. “When we won eight in a row against USC [from 1991-98], we had it going really big-time. No team either side of this war had won eight in a row. All of a sudden, we lost three and acted like those losses were not important. ‘This is just another game’ was the mind-set. We lost our foothold.”

Donahue speaks from experience. His Bruins won a watershed game against USC in 1980, at a time when the Trojans had won seven of the previous eight games in the series.

The Bruins’ 20-17 victory in 1980 — Donahue’s first in five tries against USC — started a run in which UCLA was 5-1 in bowl games, including three victories in the Rose Bowl.


Donahue was 5-2 against USC in that stretch, 1980-86.

“You can’t make this game big when you win it, then make it a nonevent when you lose it,” Donahue said. “When UCLA lost 66-19 [in 2005], the talk was we just hadn’t played well and it was no big deal.

“It should hurt when you lose this game. It should hurt for 365 days.”

USC hurt for a year after the 2006 game.

UCLA has been hurting ever since.

“There’s been a lot of rebuilding here since that game,” Carter said. “We seem to be stuck on rebuilding.”

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.