PASADENA, Calif. — Saturday didn’t turn out like 1974 for USC. Instead, it turned out like much of 2012.
On the game’s first snap, a hurried senior quarterback Matt Barkley looked to his left and fired a pass toward Marqise Lee. But the sophomore wide receiver and Heisman Trophy candidate 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, capping off the drive and giving the No. 17 Bruins the 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 at the Coliseum, 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 bounce back from the early deficit and fell 38-28 to crosstown rival UCLA for the first time since 2006 and just the second time since 1998 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 22 of 30 passes for 234 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 lobbed a 17-yard touchdown pass to 6-foot-8 tight end Joseph Fauria as part of the early scoring barrage that put UCLA in position to snap its five-game losing streak to USC.
“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. 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.
As a result, the Trojans trailed 24-14 at halftime.
“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 throwing shoulder following a sack by linebacker Anthony Barr. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek filled in at quarterback for the remainder of the game.
Though declining to provide any specific information regarding the injury he did leave the locker room with his right arm in an apparent sling and his status for the team’s regular season finale — Saturday against No. 1 Notre Dame — remains uncertain.
“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 nine receptions for 158 yards and one touchdown, becoming the Pac-12 single-season leader in receiving yards with 1,605 yards through 11 games. Senior running back Curtis McNeal added 161 rushing yards on 21 carries.
But trailing 31-28 toward the end of the fourth quarter and needing a stop, the Trojans couldn’t quite get one. UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin found the end zone on a 29-yard run to cap off a nine-play drive that spanned more than 80 yards and put the game out of reach.
“We fired back,” senior safety T.J. McDonald said, “but we just didn’t do enough. They capitalized on opportunities and we didn’t.”