This one was ugly to the end.
Maybe it’s for the best that this showing was relegated to cable in a timeslot that would keep anyone on the east coast from watching. Those who did tune in probably flipped the channel before the conclusion.
Experiencing Saturday’s USC-UCLA game was as much of a struggle as the one that took place on the field. Stats could tell the story – the Trojans racked up more than 100 penalty yards and the Bruins turned the ball over four times.
But all except for the last minute of this game will likely be forgotten. And it’s not just that the surprise strike to Damian Williams and the ensuing skirmish finally gave us something to talk about. It’s that the two most memorable moments of the night embodied the pulse of the rivalry and captured where both programs stand.
It’s just a shame that the rivalry manifested itself in such a hideous way.
Some have said that USC’s 48-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left with the Trojans up 21-7 was football’s equivalent of a middle finger to a despised rival. The move won’t be remembered for its social tact, but fans have cried that the Trojans were provoked. USC was content to run out the clock on an otherwise forgettable game, but the opportunity for another touchdown arose when the Bruins used a timeout to get the ball back.
“We’re not trying to run the score up,” running back Allen Bradford said. “We have respect for UCLA and they have respect for us. But we were trying to run the game clock out and they called a timeout, so I guess they wanted some more.”
As expected, Pete Carroll had a politically correct take on the play already crafted for the postgame press conference.
“It’s the heart of a competitor just battling,” Carroll said. “In the competitive moment, we went for it – and that’s it.”
There’s little doubt that competitive energy drove the decision, but don’t believe both parties when they spin this just as a matter of trying to win a football game.
No, there was plenty of ego involved in this. Quarterback Matt Barkley spoke after the game about being disrespected by the Bruins’ decision to take a timeout. It was clear that damaged feelings were a key component of the escalation.
Carroll and UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel are perhaps too similar to be cordial while sharing the same field. The combative nature of their relationship is well-documented and it’s clear that there’s bitterness simmering below the surface on both sides. The postgame handshake between the two was as icy as the rest of the night at the Coliseum.
Maybe we should have seen all of this coming. By taking a timeout, Neuheisel opened himself up to the possibility of being lit up one last time. But the long bomb and subsequent celebration gave the Trojans an unbecoming aura of showiness.
Players shrugged off the incident afterward, saying that there was never a chance of a fight breaking out. And maybe the best part of the whole debacle was that a full-on melee never broke.
”We jumped around a little bit and then we saw them coming over,” said linebacker Chris Galippo, who avoided the potential skirmish by standing on the sidelines. “I just said ‘no one’s going to see me on YouTube getting knocked out.’ That was kind of on my mind, but I also didn’t want anything to jeopardize next week’s game.”
There’s little use in playing the blame game now. When viewed in isolation, both coaches’ choices seem innocuous. But somewhere along the line, cooler heads should have prevailed and one coach should have yielded in the name of sportsmanship.
Both coaches gush about the rivalry and its history. Yet instead of a memorable game, the lasting image of this game might be UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter knocking down an official in the post-touchdown fracas. Vitriol and animosity won out on Saturday and will reign until the next clash.
The good news for both sides is that they’ll get another chance at this next year.