In the moments leading up to Saturday’s game against then-No. 10 USC, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel insisted the gap between the two programs had closed.
Provided they could upend the Trojans (10-2, 7-2) in the 81st meeting between the two crosstown rivals, the Bruins would find themselves in first place atop the Pac-12 South standings.
“We’ve got a chance to win the championship, that’s closing the gap,” he said. “We didn’t have a chance in years past.”
Though UCLA (6-6, 5-4) will represent the South division Friday in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game against No. 8 Oregon as USC is ineligible for postseason play, it didn’t necessarily look like a squad headed to a conference title game.
In front of an announced sellout crowd at the Coliseum, USC defeated UCLA, 50-0, to maintain the football pecking order in Los Angeles, despite the optimism Neuheisel had generated since returning to Southern California just four years ago.
It was USC’s 12th win in the last 13 meetings against UCLA. It was also the most lopsided matchup between the two rivals since 1930, when USC similarly toppled the Bruins by a score of 52-0.
“It was a pretty strong statement to me,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of Neuheisel’s remarks. “Our players took that very personally.”
The Trojans established their dominance early and did not let up, scoring on their first four possessions of the game en route to a 29-0 halftime lead.
And they scored quickly. Their first scoring drive, capped by a 42-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Matt Barkley to freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee, lasted a mere 1:45. USC’s second scoring possession was even shorter — 1:42.
Headlining its offensive attack, in large part, was Barkley, playing in what could prove to be his final game in a cardinal-and-gold uniform. The third-year signal caller tossed six touchdown passes to break the Pac-12 single-season record for touchdowns with 39 — a mark previously held by former USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, who threw for 38 in 2003.
“I never thought this would happen,” said Barkley, who also threw for 423 yards, completing 35 of 42 passes. “I remember watching him play that year. I kind of dreamed about something like that, but I never thought it would actually happen.”
Barkley’s offensive showing was aided by the play of his wide receivers, Lee and sophomore Robert Woods, who finished with 224 and 113 receiving yards, respectively, moving each above 1,000 yards on the season, marking just the fourth time in school history a receiving duo has done so.
Woods also broke the single-season Pac-12 record for receptions, finishing with 111 on the season, snapping Keyshawn Johnson’s previously held mark of 102.
“[Woods] was a huge motivation for me,” Lee said. “I knew once I came to ’SC, I would transition all of my energy into football. My teammates and coaches have helped me a lot.”
Though USC’s offense accomplished a number of milestones against the Bruins, its defense, in several respects, was equally as impressive, recording its first shutout since a 56-0 win over Washington on Nov. 1, 2008, and first over the Bruins since 2001.
“We just try not to let anybody score. Period,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “And that’s every game. [Saturday], everything fell our way. It all comes back to finishing.”
The Bruins, though failing to register a point, did have scoring chances, particularly in the early moments.
Trailing 7-0 with less than two minutes into the game, UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince and company fielded the ball at their 20-yard line, before marching 79 yards in just over six minutes to the USC 1-yard line with a chance to score.
Facing a fourth-and-goal and needing a touchdown to knot the score at seven, Neuheisel opted to try and score instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal. But junior safety Jawanza Starling broke through into the backfield and stopped running back Derrick Coleman on a running play that yielded no gain.
Five plays later, junior tailback Curtis McNeal found the end zone on a 73-yard run, giving the Trojans a two-touchdown lead midway into the first quarter. McNeal would finish with 130 rushing yards on 12 carries, giving him 1,005 yards on the season to become USC’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Joe McKnight in 2009.
The win on Saturday marked the Trojans’ 10th of the year, giving the team its 25th double digit-win season.
“To win is one thing, but to win like that is something different altogether,” Kiffin said. “I’m really excited for our fans and our players.”
But even for USC, which finished undefeated in November for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons, outscoring opponents by a combined margin of 170-69, it won’t play in the first-ever Pac-12 championship game on Friday against Oregon, nor will it play in a bowl game — as outlined by NCAA sanctions
“We should be going to play for the Pac-12 title,” Robey said. “But we already understood that we have no control over what happened. Next year, we’ll just have to come out and set the tone early.”