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USC’s defense gets its (second) act together in victory over UCLA

USC safety Talanoa Hufanga tackles UCLA wide receiver Kyle Philips during the first half Dec. 12, 2020.
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga tackles UCLA wide receiver Kyle Philips. Hufanga finished with 17 tackles and had a key interception in the Trojans’ 43-38 victory.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Here was a shot to put a stamp on its season, however strange it may have been. Here was a chance against UCLA to prove its defense had definitively improved, however long it might have taken.

USC had already clinched its place in the Pac-12 title game hours before, earning its first appearance since 2017. It put itself in that position after consecutive strong efforts from a defense that was rebuilt by a new coordinator in the offseason and nearly came unraveled in the first half of this one.

Those seams were stretched to their limit again throughout Saturday’s wild 43-38 victory over UCLA. The Trojans defense allowed a season-high 549 yards. They were torched again by UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns, and run over by Demetric Felton Jr., who rushed for 90 yards and added two touchdowns through the air.

Tackles were missed. Mistakes were made. But after a first-half performance to forget for its defense, a series of stellar stops and game-changing plays in the second gave USC the life it needed to slip past UCLA with just 16 seconds to spare on Saturday.

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USC’s 2020 reputation for comebacks hit its high mark for the season Saturday in the Trojans’ gutsy 43-38 victory over crosstown rival UCLA.

“At the end of the day, you have to make things happen,” USC safety Talanoa Hufanga said. “As a defense, we came together.”

Hufanga again spearheaded that effort. He finished with 17 tackles, two of which were for losses, and forced a fumble on a botched punt. But it was his interception with 10 minutes remaining in the game that turned the tide for the Trojans, who just a few minutes before trailed by two scores. Six plays later after his pick, USC took its very first lead of the game, 36-35.

“I can’t thank Talanoa enough,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Just a huge momentum play.”

Throughout an inconsistent first half, USC struggled to seize any semblance of that momentum. Whenever its offense seemed to find a rhythm, it’s defense let it slip away — often, literally.

No Trojan defender was immune from those miscues. Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao had been one of the Trojans’ most consistent defensive players all season. Then, midway through the second quarter, Felton caught a swing pass in the flat with only Pola-Mao in front of him. But the junior safety whiffed on the tackle, and Felton walked into the end zone for 21-yard touchdown.

Kevon Slovis’ fifth touchdown pass, with 16 seconds left, lifted USC to a 43-38 win over UCLA and a 5-0 record. Up next is the Pac-12 title game.

“[UCLA coach Chip Kelly] kind of had us on our heels,” Helton said.

Just a few minutes later, Felton caught a wheel route down the sideline, where USC cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart was waiting. But Felton slipped right through his hands and bowled into the end zone to give UCLA a 21-10 lead with just 20 seconds left in the half.

“This game was not going our way early. Some self-inflicted wounds,” Helton said.

Still, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando remained calm at halftime. We’re in position, he told them. Just make the plays.

“We came in and said, we just took their best shot,” Helton said. “We’re not playing great ball right now. Let’s flip the switch. Let’s play our brand of football, and let’s fight for 30 minutes, and it took all 30 to get it done.”

Highlights from USC’s 43-38 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.

Packed within that half-hour was what seemed like a season’s worth of big plays for a defense in desperate need of them.

After linebacker Kana’i Mauga missed another tackle to let UCLA running back Brittain Brown run free for a third-quarter touchdown, USC marched down the field and scored on a diving, deep ball to Tyler Vaughns. From there, the Trojans defense finally seemed to find its juice.

On its next possession, USC forced the Bruins offense off the field. But its punter had other plans, holding the ball so long that he was forced to flee from Hufanga. USC responded with a touchdown to Amon-ra St. Brown.

A fourth and one on UCLA’s very next drive went quickly awry too, thanks to linebacker Drake Jackson, who burst through the line and threw down Felton for a loss of three. When faced with another fourth and one, with just over four minutes remaining, UCLA went for it again to no avail, as Hufanga and linebacker Hunter Echols combined for the stop.

UCLA would have two more chances, but each time, USC’s defense stood strong. The Bruins reached the 25-yard line, but were forced to settle for a field goal to take a narrow 38-36 lead that would only stand for 36 seconds.

USC players prevent UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich (85) from making a catch on a desperation pass at the end of the game.
USC defensive players prevent UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich (85) from making a catch on a desperation pass at the end of the game.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

With one last chance, Thompson-Robinson launched a prayer to the end zone as time expired and a silent, fan-free Rose Bowl held its breath.

But USC’s defense batted down the desperate bomb, putting its final stamp on a stunning performance that nearly slipped away.


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