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USC turns on the power to beat UCLA, 40-21, and advance to Pac-12 title game

USC turns on the power to beat UCLA, 40-21, and advance to Pac-12 title game
USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster begins celebrating a 40-21 victory over crosstown rival UCLA in the closing moments of the fourth quarter. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In a bustling hallway outside USC's celebratory locker room, Clay Helton stood alone and took a quiet moment to gather his thoughts.

Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler, standing across the way, apologized to a television reporter for bypassing an interview so that he could share a jubilant moment with victorious teammates.

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And then the fifth-year senior turned around, spied Helton and walked toward the interim coach with arms outstretched to share a long, tight embrace.

In a season of turmoil, Helton, Kessler and the Trojans had just defeated rival UCLA with a 40-21 victory at the Coliseum that made USC the Pac-12 Conference South champion.

Saturday's victory earned the Trojans the right to play Stanford next week for the conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl. And it could enhance Helton's bid to retain his job, minus the "interim" tag.

"I think about the seniors and the roller-coaster ride they have gone through," Helton said. "I am so proud and a little bit lost for words."

Resilient was the word of choice for USC players.

With the division title on the line for both the Trojans and the Bruins, USC played physical on offense and defense and won the rivalry game for the first time since 2011.

"The guys really came together and made a decision," Kessler said of the Trojans' preparation. "We weren't losing this game."

Kessler passed for two touchdowns and ran for one, Justin Davis had 130 of USC's 235 yards rushing, the defense forced three key turnovers and Adoree' Jackson returned a punt for a touchdown for the second game in a row as the Trojans improved its record to 8-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play.

Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall intercepted two Josh Rosen passes and freshman defensive lineman Rasheem Green returned a Rosen fumble for a touchdown as the USC defense bounced back from an embarrassing performance against Oregon.

The victory was the Trojans' first over the Bruins since a 50-0 rout at the Coliseum four years ago. USC was then in the midst of NCAA probation that kept it out of postseason play.

Now the Trojans have a chance to play in Pasadena on New Year's Day for the first time since the 2008 season.

"'SC football is back," said receiver Darreus Rogers, who caught a touchdown pass. "We knew we were supposed to be here."

Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry discuss USC's 40-21 victory over UCLA.

Jackson, whose 42-yard return in the second quarter gave USC a 20-14 halftime lead, said the Trojans played for their seniors.

"I could see how much they wanted to win," the sophomore said, "how much they wanted to go out with a bang."

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For the second year in a row, UCLA fell short of winning the South by losing its final regular-season game.

"It's like a bad dream," Bruins receiver Thomas Duarte said. "Everything was on the line. Everything was right there for us and we didn't execute."

The Bruins finished the regular season 8-4 and 5-4 in conference play.

"My heart breaks for the players," said UCLA Coach Jim Mora, who was 3-0 against USC before Saturday. "They put so much into this year. It breaks my heart to see the looks in their eyes."

Rosen, a freshman, was involved in three turnovers, but he said the Trojans did "absolutely nothing" to throw him off.

"There are a lot of plays I wish I had back," he said. "I didn't play like myself and that was really frustrating."

Rosen gave the Bruins a 14-10 lead with a second-quarter touchdown pass, but USC pulled to within a point with a field goal and then took the lead on Jackson's punt return.

Running back Paul Perkins' short touchdown run put the Bruins back in the lead early in the third quarter.

But Trojans lineman Claude Pelon sacked Rosen and forced a fumble that Green picked up and ran with for a 31-yard touchdown that started a run of 20 unanswered points.

"Toward the middle of the season, we kind of didn't know what type of team we were," Davis said. "Our game was kind of confused.

"Now we know the type of team we are. We've been playing very, very physical and our defense has been playing lights out."

Senior defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr. redshirted in 2011, so Saturday's victory enabled him to finally take part in a win over the Bruins.

"It feels great playing against them and getting the win," he said, "and running the town now."

Twitter: @latimesklein

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