After UCLA retook the lead early in the fourth quarter on Joshua Kelley's 55-yard touchdown run, there was every reason to believe, based on how JT Daniels had played during the first three quarters Saturday afternoon, that the USC offense would be able to respond.
But on the Trojans’ first play of the ensuing drive, Daniels threw a pass that was so inconceivable in his mind that all he could do was fall onto the Rose Bowl turf in disbelief.
Daniels had tossed the ball in an area devoid of USC wide receivers. It traveled right into the hands of UCLA’s Darnay Holmes. And for the second time, the freshman had thrown a pass that functioned more like a punt to the Bruins.
What made it so debilitating this time was the timing — UCLA now led 28-27 and suddenly had the ball again in good field position — and the fact that Daniels was actually trying to do the right thing. He said after the game that he was attempting to throw the ball out of bounds and it “got away from me.”
“Disgust,” Daniels said. “That’s inexcusable.”
Daniels’ first crosstown rivalry game — a 34-27 loss — won’t be remembered for the pristine 44-yard touchdown pass he threw to Amon-ra St. Brown or the 337 passing yards he compiled in dicing up the Bruins in some stretches.
For the second week in a row, the USC offense looked competent in the first half and self-destructed in the second half on the way to a crushing loss. Last week against California, the Trojans were shut out in the final 30 minutes. Saturday, all USC could muster in that span — with the Victory Bell and bowl eligibility on the line — was a field goal.
The Trojans had many chances. The USC defense, for all of its troubles getting off the field, held UCLA to two field goals in the fourth quarter and got the ball back for the offense with 2:30 remaining.
But like on so many failed USC drives this season, the Trojans pushed the ball all the way to the UCLA 29 before stalling out on a fourth-and-three, an incomplete pass from Daniels to St. Brown.
“It sucks,” Daniels said, “because you can’t get it back.”
Daniels will have more crosstown rivalry games, and that’s a good thing. It would be cruel if the 18-year-old had to be left with this one.
USC coach Clay Helton, however, may not get to coach another USC-UCLA battle — an idea that the cerebral Daniels doesn’t easily accept.
“If you ask coach Helton could he do things better, I promise you he would say yes,” Daniels said, “but this is not Clay Helton blew it, this is USC football blew it.”
“Nobody wants to see him go,” Daniels continued. “Everybody here that knows him loves him. If you blame Clay Helton for that loss, then you have no idea what football is. There’s things that players aren’t executing. That’s the players’ part of the ballgame, to make the plays. We have the opportunity. I think a lot of times we’re in the right position, and sometimes we don’t make the plays that we need to make.”
Daniels, the Gatorade national male athlete of the year out of Santa Ana Mater Dei, was supposed to be the Trojans’ savior this season in the aftermath of Sam Darnold’s early departure to the NFL. He has shown flashes of what made him such a high-profile recruit, but he has not brought the consistency to lift USC (5-6, 4-5 Pac-12) anywhere near the program’s standard.
Daniels has only been one part of the problem with this offense, which hasn’t gotten it done two weeks in a row with Helton calling the plays instead of offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
On Saturday, UCLA stacked the box to stop the run, and USC responded by putting the game in Daniels’ hands. It was hard to say he couldn’t handle it. But then again, the Trojans didn’t finish the job once again.