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Column: Hand USC the crown — Trojans are comeback kings after thrilling finish to beat UCLA

USC offensive linemen Andrew Vorhees and Jalen McKenzie and tight end Erik Krommenhoek celebrate a fourth-quarter touchdown.
USC offensive linemen Andrew Vorhees (72) and Jalen McKenzie (70) and tight end Erik Krommenhoek (84) celebrate a fourth-quarter touchdown during Saturday’s win over UCLA.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Amon-ra St. Brown leaped into the night, hauled in the pass, fell into the corner of the end zone, and was immediately surrounded by teammates carrying a message.

In this crazy, pandemic-wracked college football season in Los Angeles, it’s the only message that makes any sense.

“It’s our time!” the USC Trojans shouted. “It’s our time!”

On a desolate, desperate Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, it was indeed their time.

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Comeback time. Gasping time. Winning time.

Kevon Slovis’ fifth touchdown pass, with 16 seconds left, lifted USC to a 43-38 win over UCLA and a 5-0 record. Up next is the Pac-12 title game.

For the third time in five games this season, the Trojans used the final moments to turn a loss on its head, stealing a victory and building a legacy and confirming a culture.

They fought on, and on, and on, and eventually upended upstart UCLA, 43-38, in a game that began with a surprise and ended with a statement.

The surprise was that UCLA and embattled coach Chip Kelly truly seem to be experiencing a resurgence. The Bruins are no longer an underachieving mess; they’re clearly a tougher team than in recent years.

The statement was USC saying not so fast.

“The definition of fight on,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Down the stretch they made play after play after play … that’s about as special as it gets.”

It could soon get even more special. The Trojans are 5-0 for the first time since the Pete Carroll glory days of 2006.

They already had clinched the Pac-12 South title and are slated to play Washington on Friday at the Coliseum for the conference title and a spot in the celebrated Fiesta Bowl.

It’s been an asterisk-filled season in college football, and very little has seemed legitimate, but Saturday night, USC’s relentlessness was real.

The Trojans trailed by 18 early in the third quarter. They trailed by 12 early in the fourth quarter. They trailed by two in the final minute.

But moments after Nicholas Barr-Mira’s 43-yard field goal gave UCLA the lead with 52 seconds remaining, it became USC’s time.

“I knew that if we just had one more opportunity, that they’d make it happen,” Helton said. “That’s who this team is … there was 52 seconds left, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter if they make this or not, there’s an opportunity for our guys.”

The final comeback began with a 56-yard kickoff return by Gary Bryant Jr., who was stunningly even given a chance to catch the kick.

“It was the first time the ball didn’t go over his head,” Helton said. “As soon as the kid kicked it, it was like, oh my gosh, we’re going to have a shot here.”

The next shot was a 35-yard pass from Kedon Slovis that Tyler Vaughns brought down between two defenders.

Highlights from USC’s 43-38 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.

“I’ll never forget TV’s catch,” Helton said. “I’ll be 80 years old and remember that play.”

The third and final of those shots was the eight-yard, eventual game-winning touchdown pass from Slovis to St. Brown.

“He’s got the nerves of a lion,” Helton said of Slovis.

They all do.

You want comebacks? The Trojans were down 13 in the final three minutes against Arizona State and won. They trailed in the final minute at Arizona and won.

You want pressure performances? In the fourth quarter this season Slovis has thrown five touchdown passes with no interceptions.

“We’ve been through the situation so many times, I felt like everyone had their cool,” Slovis said. “The experience from the other games definitely helped.”

On the other side, UCLA’s inexperience in these situations seemed to stifle its chances. The Bruins outgained the Trojans 549 yards to 444 but committed three turnovers that led to 15 points.

Provided nothing COVID-19-related derails the game, USC will play Washington in the Pac-12 title game next week.

“It really hurts,” Kelly said.

For all of the improvements made by the Bruins, now 3-3, this loss keeps the heat on Kelly. For all of the defensive changes that have altered the aura of this team — the Bruins are clearly tougher than in past years — Kelly still has a 10-20 record as its coach.

“Anytime you lose it’s hard, and then especially when you lose a close game, I don’t think you quantify it, that we lost this way or we lost that way,” he said.

Yes, but some of the blame was clearly on his shoulders. While USC made the big plays, Kelly stumbled in calling the big plays, going 0 for 3 on fourth-down conversion attempts that included one questionable call.

Driving for the lead late in the fourth quarter, they were stopped on the USC 37-yard line when redshirt freshman Keegan Jones was smothered on a fourth-and-one run … with the Bruins’ top two running backs, Demetric Felton Jr. and Brittain Brown, on the bench.

USC’s defense recovers from first-half lapses and makes clutch plays late to help the Trojans pull out a 43-38 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

“He was the back that was in the game at the time,” Kelly explained, not much of an explanation.

The heat is also on the coach for not making sure that RJ Lopez booted that last kickoff anywhere but in the hands of a speedy USC returner.

“It was a back-and-forth deal,” Kelly said. “They just made one more play than we did.”

One more comeback. One more gasp. One true message. It was USC’s time.


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