His UCLA team had just lost to Arizona State, another misstep in a long, dismal season, when tight end Caleb Wilson was asked about facing USC next weekend. Did it mean anything special?
“It used to,” he said. “But it’s just another game to me.”
If that sounds like heresy — at least to college football fans in Southern California — Wilson has the numbers to justify his lack of reverence for the 88th edition of the crosstown rivalry.
Saturday marks only the seventh time since 1929 that neither the Bruins nor the Trojans have a winning record entering the annual showdown. Their 13 combined losses are the most ever.
The teams won’t battle each other for a Rose Bowl berth, which they have done on 22 occasions. There won’t be an epic struggle in the national spotlight, nothing reminiscent of O.J. Simpson versus Gary Beban or Troy Aikman versus Rodney Peete.
The 5-5 Trojans are simply hoping to get bowl-eligible before their finale against third-ranked Notre Dame. And the Bruins? They’re looking for a bright spot in a 2-8 season.
“We’re obviously competing every week here and we’ve been close a couple times,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “I think [a win] would pay big dividends to these guys.”
Only a few months ago, this rivalry looked promising on a scale beyond pride, with USC starting at No. 15 in the preseason Associated Press poll and UCLA hopeful about Kelly’s debut.
Funny how losing changes things.
USC has dropped three of its last four to slip out of contention in the Pac-12 South; UCLA was never in the running, not with an 0-5 start, including two Pac-12 losses.
Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith is finding his motivation in a basic way.
“The game of football is fun,” he said. “And that rivalry is fun.”
Certainly there is precedent for USC-UCLA providing entertainment even in the worst of seasons.
The first subpar matchup dates to 1937 when USC was 3-4-2 and UCLA 2-5-1. The Trojans took control early and held a 19-0 lead into the fourth quarter before Bruins running back Kenny Washington, who could also throw the ball, caught fire.
His two touchdown passes in the span of 26 seconds closed the gap to 19-13 and he barely missed on a third, whistling a short pass incomplete at the goal line as the clock ticked down.
“Sorry, Kenny, but that potato was just too hot to handle,” Woody Strode, the intended receiver and future actor, told him afterward. “It went right through my hands.”
The loss was particularly costly to UCLA assistant yell leader Jimmy Thickstun, who lost a bet on the game and had to push a peanut around the block with his nose. As The Times reported: “Jimmy started his task, but soon had to have first aid in the form of a heavy strip of adhesive tape …. He finished strong, however, in an hour and twenty minutes.”
The 1996 game was also more exciting than the records might have indicated. The 4-6 Bruins erased a 17-point deficit, then blocked a field goal attempt by 5-5 USC to keep the score tied at the end of regulation.
In the second overtime, running back Skip Hicks dashed 25 yards to give UCLA its final points in a 48-41 victory.
“I need to get my breath,” coach Bob Toledo said.
Not all the matchups in mediocre seasons have been compelling.
The 3-4-2 Trojans attempted just four passes while grinding out a 28-12 win over 1-8 UCLA in 1940. The following season, with USC at 2-6 and UCLA at 4-5, the teams played to a 7-7 tie.
In the fall of 1958, with both teams struggling, attention shifted to the UCLA students, who rented a helicopter to hover over the Tommy Trojan statue and dump a load of fertilizer.
USC students responded by printing a bogus edition of the Daily Bruin and showing up in Westwood disguised in blue sweaters to distribute the fake edition that featured stories and photographs extolling their school.
Unfortunately, the game wasn’t nearly so amusing as only 58,507 people showed up to watch 4-4 USC play 3-6 UCLA. The fans who skipped the game didn’t miss much as the favored Trojans lost five fumbles and had three passes intercepted on the way to a 15-15 tie.
Both teams were 4-6 in 1999, and it was equally ugly, with lots of penalties and a controversial call giving the Trojans a crucial touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 17-7 victory.
The outcome ended UCLA’s eight-year winning streak. Toledo said: “I tell our players all the time, sooner or later, someone’s going to get you.”
Now, USC has won three in a row. With no Rose Bowl or national ranking at stake, coach Clay Helton believes the streak provides enough motivation.
“Man, that’s a huge game and a huge opportunity,” he said. “And our kids know that.”
So the coach differs with Wilson, the UCLA tight end, or anyone else who thinks the numbers have put a damper on this year’s rivalry.
Two lousy seasons? Thirteen combined losses? Helton brushes all that aside.