For Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley, what are the stakes heading into UCLA-USC game?
By the final weeks of UCLA’s 1980 season, Terry Donahue was well aware of the whispers about his future. The Bruins coach had yet to beat USC in his tenure, losing four times in four tries, and in the crosstown rivalry, that just wasn’t cutting it. His fifth attempt, Donahue figured, would determine his future as UCLA’s coach.
“The word on the street was if I didn’t win the game, I was out,” the longtime Bruins coach told The Times in 2011.
Donahue, who died in 2021, never had to find out if the rumors were true. He beat the Trojans in 1980, kept his job and went on to become the winningest coach in Bruins history. His successors at UCLA wouldn’t be quite so fortunate.
Since Donahue’s time, the crosstown rivalry has been littered with rivalry games gone awry for Bruins coaches. In 2007, Karl Dorrell lost his job two days after losing to the Trojans. Rick Neuheisel was fired after a 50-0 flogging by USC in 2011. And Jim Mora was ousted in 2017 on his birthday, one day after a third straight loss to the Trojans, who seemed to revel in delivering the final blow to one Bruins coach after another.
Ever since UCLA quarterback Cade McNown ran a naked bootleg in the closing seconds of a blowout win over rival USC, the Bruins have struggled.
The word around Westwood this rivalry week suggests the same fate could befall UCLA’s Chip Kelly if the Bruins are humiliated at the Coliseum in the wake of back-to-back losses to Arizona and Arizona State. Nearing the end of his sixth season, Kelly could be coaching for his job Saturday. Though, the more pertinent question might be whether a win over the Trojans, whose season also is unraveling, would be much of a meaningful win at all.
Like his predecessors, Kelly understands the importance of winning the rivalry game. Donahue provided a primer, Kelly said, the coach tearing up at the memory of the legendary Bruin who recently was honored with a statue at the Rose Bowl.
“The first time I met with him he’s like, ‘You gotta beat your rival,’” Kelly said, “and then he smiled at me and said, ‘I was 10-9.’”
Kelly is 2-3 in the rivalry, and a loss would nudge his 33-33 record at UCLA back below .500. That would be a meaningful loss, given the Trojans’ recent struggles.
USC is in a free fall, loser of four of its last five, a one-time College Football Playoff contender now scraping rock bottom.
Lincoln Riley might not be sitting in a seat as scorching hot as his counterpart’s, but the USC coach finds himself in a far less comfortable position than he was in last November.
Riley had never lost more than three games in a season. Now he has lost that many in the last month, the nadir of an otherwise sterling career.
Although Riley’s support within the university hasn’t wavered, the next month — starting Saturday — will say a lot about the direction he’s taking USC.
He already fired Alex Grinch, his defensive coordinator, finally making a move that fans had been demanding for more than a year.
How far the culling continues from there could depend in part on how USC’s defense responds Saturday. Already some players have started to disappear from the practice field.
“I expect us to take a major step forward this weekend, I do,” Riley said. “Plain and simple.”
Of the two coaches, it was Kelly who managed to resurrect his defense this season. UCLA climbed from 90th in points given up last season to ninth this season, a stunning rise that seemingly should’ve sent the Bruins surging to the top of the Pac-12.
Instead it made them only a more profound disappointment, as Kelly’s vaunted offense cratered, cycling through four quarterbacks on its way to near-total futility in a 17-7 home loss to Arizona State last weekend.
Riley could sympathize with the struggle. The same has been true for USC and its defense all season.
When the Trojans and Bruins meet again, the fans from both sides who dutifully attend likely will be commiserating over another lost season.
“It’s hard to time it out sometimes where it all clicks at the same time,” the Trojans coach said.
The fact that UCLA clicked so quickly under new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn certainly caught Riley’s attention. He’ll have a close-up look Saturday against Lynn, whose fast work could make him a particularly intriguing option for another reclamation project across town — or at the very least earn him a significant raise from his $1-million annual salary.
Either way, as Riley sees it, UCLA’s overnight transformation on defense is proof that USC can pull off something similar. Assuming, of course, he’s able to bring in the right defensive coordinator.
“It’s come together for them,” Riley said. “You look across college football, whether it’s UCLA, there have been plenty of examples of when you can turn things around and grab some momentum, and you get some of the right pieces on board, both from a staff and a player perspective, that you can make really major gains quickly. It’s very possible.”
But neither team can be expected to change its stripes by Saturday. UCLA will lean on its elite defense, which has held eight of 10 opponents to 17 points or fewer.
USC will let Caleb Williams, its star quarterback, cook in what could be his last collegiate game.
While Riley raved this week about UCLA’s “tremendous” defensive front led by edge rusher Laiatu Latu, Kelly piled on praise for Williams, joining the chorus comparing him to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“He’s a truly special player — in all of college football and one for the ages,” Kelly said. “He makes some plays where you just kind of shake your head and go, ‘Oh my god.’”
USC quarterback Caleb Williams says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll leave early for the NFL, so Saturday’s game against UCLA could be his finale.
Keeping pace with a Heisman winner won’t be easy for Ethan Garbers, who’s expected to start at quarterback for UCLA after sitting out last week’s loss to Arizona State because of an apparent foot injury.
While Garbers has six touchdown passes all season, Williams has six scores (four passing, two rushing) over his last two games.
“They have the returning Heisman winner at quarterback,” Kelly said. “They can score a lot of points. We’ve got to be prepared for that.”
That left no room for other discussion this week at UCLA, or any reflection from Kelly on the Bruins’ big picture.
Was the speculation about his job a distraction to the team?
“No, not at all,” Kelly said.
But elsewhere, the conversation about Kelly was carrying on, too loud now, after six seasons, to ignore.
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