UCLA Sports

Column: Rose Bowl is at stake in USC-UCLA — but, oh, what might have been

 Rose Bowl is at stake in USC-UCLA — but, oh, what might have been

The USC offensive line squares up with the UCLA defensive line in a game at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 22, 2014.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A 20-year dream — to chronicle an epic UCLA-USC matchup as this paper’s national college football columnist — is not going to happen.

The clock ran out on the two programs as they relate to my career.

The 13-9 game of 2006 certainly moved earth, but only because it cratered USC’s national title hopes. UCLA ended 7-6 after an Emerald Bowl loss.

The promise of 2007 turned sour when UCLA, preseason No. 14, missed a slalom gate at the Salt Lake Games and lost, 44-6, to Utah.


USC was preseason No.1 that year but, as 40-points-plus favorites, had that little Tavita Pritchard issue with Stanford.

It’s been a streaky, uneven series on my watch, with UCLA dominating the 1990s and USC dominating the 2000s.

The prospect of something as special as 1967, or 1988, or the 1990 shootout between quarterbacks Todd Marinovich and Tommy Maddox, went bust like that water pipe on Sunset that flooded Pauley Pavilion.

There are no challenges left to exhaust, nor bail-out reversals from a distant replay booth.


Saturday’s game at the Coliseum will be for the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division title, with the winner earning the right to probably lose (again) to Stanford in the Dec. 5 conference title game. No one can be thrilled it ended up a battle of teams with a combined seven losses.

It was probably pie in the sky to think the local teams might be undefeated on Nov. 28 and playing for the largest stakes, a trip to this season’s four-team national playoff. But remember, USC was No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press media poll, with UCLA checking in at No. 13. (Maybe that unlucky number was an omen.)

An onslaught of injuries unhinged UCLA from its moorings, and USC endured injuries and off-field trauma.

It’s a credit to both schools that the Rose Bowl is still at stake and not the Pac-12-affiliated Cactus Bowl. Officials for that game on Monday announced Motel 6 as the sponsor but didn’t say if the bid came with turn-down service.

UCLA tried but failed to overcome the loss of three starters on defense: Eddie Vanderdoes, Fabian Moreau and Myles Jack. Losing Jack was like losing three players: a linebacker, cover man and power tailback.

USC lost Coach Steve Sarkisian twice: the first time after he slurred his words at a preseason team function, the second when he was fired shortly after the Washington loss.

The Trojans also lost center Max Tuerk, and then his backup. Man-child receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been playing with a broken hand and hobbling on a bad ankle for a month.

It is amazing how many times Smith-Schuster has crawled back to the field only moments after he appeared to suffer a significant injury.


Linebacker was the latest position to blow a gasket, causing the defense to fizzle last weekend against Oregon.

Yet, if not for a few horrible officiating calls, Christian McCaffrey being born into a Stanford family, Vernon Adams Jr. passing a summer math test at Oregon, and 15 or 20 unfortunate ball bounces — think of what could have been.

UCLA might be undefeated if these pitfalls could have been avoided:

• Oct. 3, Rose Bowl: Arizona State 38, UCLA 23

This one is on offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who kept trying to run into the teeth of an Arizona State defense constructed to stop the run.

“I’m stubborn sometimes,” Mazzone said after the game.

UCLA successfully started passing in the second half, with quarterback Josh Rosen leading two scoring drives to get the Bruins back in the game. But it was too late.

• Oct. 15, Palo Alto: Stanford 56, UCLA 35


The Bruins produced plenty of offense, amassing 442 total yards, but the Cardinal had too much McCaffrey, who set the school’s single-game rushing mark with 243 yards. If only McCaffrey’s father and mother had played football at Michigan.

• Nov. 14, Rose Bowl: Washington State, 31, UCLA 27

Rosen ran for what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown, only to be outdone when Washington State scored with three seconds left.

USC might be undefeated if not for seven or eight (OK, nine) breaks that didn’t go the Trojans’ way:

• Sept. 19, Coliseum: Stanford 41, USC 31

The Trojans led just before the half when cornerback Adoree’ Jackson slipped in coverage and allowed Stanford an easy touchdown pass with three seconds left.

• Oct. 8, Coliseum: Washington 17, USC 12

USC backs were ripping off big runs on what could have been the game-winning drive when, inexplicably, on first and 10 from the Washington 29, a low-percentage pass was ordered down the right sideline. It fell incomplete. On fourth and nine, USC opted for a field goal to cut the lead to two. It missed.

• Oct. 17, South Bend: Notre Dame 41, USC 31

The score was tied 31-31, in the fourth quarter and USC had first and 10 at the Irish 38. End result: punt.

• Nov. 21, Eugene: Oregon 48, USC 28

The biggest blow to Trojans hopes came last August when Eastern Washington transfer Adams, who passed for 407 yards and six touchdowns Saturday, passed a critical math test to make him eligible.

The other blow: With USC down by 10, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler bobbled a low center snap and then fumbled after a blind-side hit. Oregon scored on the next play to go up 45-28.

To think, after all these years of waiting, an epic UCLA-USC matchup was just that close to becoming reality.


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