Saturday didn’t turn out like 1974 for No. 18 USC. Instead, it turned out like much of 2012.
On the game’s first snap, senior quarterback Matt Barkley looked to his left and fired a pass toward Marqise Lee. But the sophomore wide receiver was swarmed by two defenders, and the pass was snatched by UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester, who returned the interception 14 yards to the Trojans’ 17-yard line.
Four plays later, Brett Hundley snuck in on a 1-yard touchdown run, giving the No. 17 Bruins an early 7-0 edge. Hundley, the team’s first-year starter at quarterback, helped guide UCLA (9-2, 6-2) to a quick 24-0 lead by the midway point of the second quarter. And that lead was never relinquished.
“I totally thought we were going to win that game — even down by the big score early,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “I thought it’d be like the Notre Dame-‘SC game from years ago.”
But there would be no similar comeback victory over a heated rival, as was the case during the 1974 Trojan win over Notre Dame, when USC trailed 24-0 during the second quarter before reeling off 55 straight points.
Instead, as has been the case throughout much of the season, USC (7-4, 5-4) failed to recover from the early deficit, falling, this time to crosstown rival UCLA 38-28 for the first time since 2006 in front of an announced crowd of 83,277 at the Rose Bowl.
“The quarterback made a number of great throws in that run they had there,” Kiffin said of Hundley. “You have to give a lot of credit to him. It’s not easy to do in a game like that.”
Hundley, who would complete 19 of 26 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown on the afternoon, had his fair share of successes against the Trojans’ overwhelmed defensive front, especially during “that run” in the early moments. During the first quarter, the redshirt freshman signal caller lobbed a 17-yard touchdown pass to 6-foot-8 tight end Joseph Fauria as part of an early scoring barrage.
“He’s real fast, but he can also throw the ball,” said sophomore defensive tackle George Uko, who compared Hundley to former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Vince Young and Cam Newton. “He’s only going to get better from here.”
With the win, UCLA, not USC, will now represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game, scheduled for Nov. 30.
Though playing from behind for most of the afternoon, USC’s offense did appear to be in position to pull off a come-from-behind win, especially at certain points. Within the remaining minutes of the second quarter, Barkley threw touchdown passes on back-to-back drives: a 33-yard toss to freshman wide receiver Nelson Agholor and a 2-yard strike to sophomore tight end Randall Telfer.
“We dug ourselves in a hole we couldn’t get out of, which is unfortunate,” said Barkley, who threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns, but also had two passes intercepted during the team’s third loss in the last four games.
Barkley, now with a career-high 15 interceptions this season, was later forced to leave the game during the fourth quarter after landing awkwardly on his right shoulder following a sack by linebacker Anthony Barr.
Though declining to provide any specific information regarding the injury, he did leave the locker room with his right arm in an apparent sling.
“I fought as hard as I could have fought,” Barkley said. “Plays were there, plays weren’t there. There were times I feel like we could have broken the game open, but it just didn’t happen.”
Several skilled position players put up their usual productive numbers. Lee finished with 9 receptions for 158 yards and one touchdown, and senior running back Curtis McNeal rushed 161 yards on 21 carries.
But when needing a late stop, trailing 31-28 late in the fourth quarter, the Trojans couldn’t quite get one, and they couldn’t get their offense back on the field. UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin found the end zone on a 29-yard run, capping off a nine-play drive that spanned more than 80 yards.
“We fired back,” senior safety T.J. McDonald said, “but we just didn’t do enough. They capitalized on opportunities and we didn’t.”
USC concludes its regular season on Nov. 24 at the Coliseum against No. 3 Notre Dame.