The USC players pranced onto the Rose Bowl field before the start of the fourth quarter, legs bouncing and arms waving in a display of machismo on their rivals’ turf.
UCLA stared across the field and waited.
There was a last dance to be saved.
The Bruins poured onto the field after their 34-27 victory on Saturday afternoon, some sprinting directly toward the student section and others milling about, each of them savoring the riveting end of the Trojans’ stranglehold on the crosstown rivalry.
UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley, whose 55-yard touchdown run started a mad dash of a fourth quarter in which the Bruins outscored the Trojans 13-0, marinated in the moment long afterward, showing up to the postgame interviews in his sweat-soaked No. 27 jersey.
“If somebody told me I have to sleep in this jersey, I would,” Kelley said after his career-high 289 yards rushing were the third-most by a Bruin and tops by any player in the history of a rivalry that dates to 1929.
USC’s final act in a comedy of misfortune was to trudge glumly toward a future of uncertainty. Some players offered pleasantries to their UCLA counterparts at midfield and others headed straight for the locker room after their three-game winning streak in the series was unmercifully snapped before a crowd of 57,116.
“It’s pretty crushing,” Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Leaving that stadium like that, it’s pretty tough, but I’ve just got to move on.”
USC coach Clay Helton walked off the field expressionless, his Trojans (5-6 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12 Conference) now needing to beat No. 3 Notre Dame next weekend at the Coliseum to avoid their first losing season since the inglorious end of the Paul Hackett era in 2000. A victory over the Fighting Irish might not even be enough to save Helton’s job.
“Nobody wants to see him go,” Trojans quarterback JT Daniels said. “Everybody here that knows him loves him. If you blame Clay Helton for that loss, then you have no idea what football is.”
USC lost the game long before Daniels’ final pass fell incomplete on fourth down at the UCLA 29-yard line with 32 seconds left, prompting Bruins coach Chip Kelly to thrust his arms into the air in triumph.
Daniels had two passes intercepted, including one that slipped out of his fingers early in the fourth quarter that he intended to throw away but was snagged by UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes. Defensive lineman Brandon Pili threw a punch that resulted in an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, giving the Bruins (3-8, 3-5) a first down on a drive that ended in a touchdown. The Trojans generated only three points on a drive early in the third quarter after they had first and goal at the Bruins’ five-yard line.
USC also never came close to stopping Kelley, the transfer from UC Davis who somehow had to play his first two college seasons at a Football Championship Subdivision school even though he starred at Lancaster Eastside Highin the Trojans’ and Bruins’ backyard.
Kelley was such a reliable source of yardage that his coach kept calling for him to carry the ball. He totaled 40 carries — tied for the third-most in school history — while becoming UCLA’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Paul Perkins in 2015.
“I wish he carried it 100,” Kelly said with a chuckle after his first signature victory as Bruins coach. “We track all our guys with GPS systems, we’re the most scientific team in college football, so don’t worry about it.”
Kelley was untouched on his 55-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that gave the Bruins a 28-27 lead they extended with two J.J. Molson field goals.
The late scoring binge helped UCLA withstand some trademark mistakes. Punter Stefan Flintoft had a punt blocked that was recovered by USC’s Devon Williams for a touchdown. The Bruins also gave up a first down on a fake punt, leading to another score on the next play when Daniels connected with Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 44-yard touchdown.
But everything trended UCLA’s way after the Trojans danced while holding a 27-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The gesture did not go unnoticed across the field.
“No positive thoughts,” UCLA graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight said when asked about the scene.
Speight was steady in his only appearance in the crosstown rivalry, completing 13 of 22 passes for 166 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also ran for a four-yard touchdown while helping the Bruins build a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, holding the ball out when he crossed the goal line.
The beleaguered Bruins defense also came through with the needed stops. Linebacker Krys Barnes spun down Vavae Malepeai for a four-yard loss on third down to end one drive in the fourth quarter and kept Daniels’ last pass from finding St. Brown.
Kelly ran onto the field after the pass fell incomplete, frantically motioning toward his players to resist the urge to follow him and draw a penalty. The Bruins complied, having metaphorically reached the peak their coach alluded to last week during a video he showed at a pep rally featuring a cub repeatedly slipping down a snow-covered hillside before making its way to the top.
“What they’ve put in all year long, to win this right now, kind of gives them an understanding of what we ask them to do,” Kelly said. “It pays off and for one 24-hour span, we get to feel OK about ourselves.”
And so a lost season left the Bruins with a sense of euphoria amid the glow of a chilly late afternoon, Speight sprawling on the field while leaning his head against a group of teammates smiling and flexing for a camera.