Heading into the 83rd meeting between crosstown rivals USC and UCLA, the focus of the game was mainly on the Trojans and interim head coach Ed Orgeron, with many viewing the game as Orgeron’s opportunity to firmly announce himself as the frontrunner to take over as USC’s permanent head coach after the season’s end.
By the end of what would ultimately be Orgeron’s final game, however, the spotlight had undoubtedly shifted to UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who turned in a star performance in the Bruins’ 35-14 victory, their second straight win over the Trojans and first win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1997.
Orgeron resigned on Monday after former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian was announced as USC’s next head coach.
Hundley finished the game with 18 completions on 27 attempts for 208 yards passing, but the redshirt sophomore did most of his damage with his legs, rushing for 80 yards on 13 carries with two touchdowns.
“He’s a great playmaker,” redshirt senior outside linebacker Devon Kennard said. “We had a great gameplan, but I think it comes down to us missing tackles, and we didn’t execute as well as we can. The coaches put us in a great position. Part of it is him being as good of an athlete as he is, and part of it is us not making the plays we could have made.”
UCLA first struck midway through the first quarter on a 3-yard touchdown run by linebacker/running back Myles Jack, and extended its lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter on a 1-yard run by defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes. The early deficit proved to be too much for the Trojans to overcome.
“We started fast on defense, but we weren’t able to convert that to offense,” Orgeron said. “We didn’t move the chains. We felt we got behind a little bit. We played well in spurts, but the sacks really hurt us.”
The UCLA pass rush, led by outside linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Cassius Marsh, took advantage of a depleted USC offensive line after junior center Marcus Martin and redshirt junior offensive guard Aundrey Walker left the game in the first half with injuries. Martin suffered what was described as a serious knee injury, and Orgeron reported after the game that Walker had a broken ankle.
Barr and Marsh each finished the game with two sacks, and the Bruins had six overall.
“They did a good job rushing. When you have guys like that who are that big and strong, you’re gonna take some hits,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler said. “Obviously it’s never good when you lose two offensive linemen in the same game. It didn’t change [the playcalling] much. We just didn’t execute.”
Kessler completed 17 out of his 28 pass attempts and threw for 174 yards and one touchdown, but also lost a fumble late in the fourth quarter that ended what little hope remained for the Trojans to come back.
After UCLA scored on its first drive of the second half and extended the lead to 21-7, USC responded with a seven-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Kessler to redshirt junior tight end Xavier Grimble, and the momentum appeared to be swinging the Trojans’ way.
Immediately following the touchdown, however, USC gave up a 46-yard kickoff return by UCLA return man Ishmael Adams that gave the Bruins good starting field position and led to a 5-yard touchdown run by Hundley.
The USC special teams unit struggled throughout the night, particularly in the punting game. Redshirt sophomore punter Kris Albarado struggled to punt the ball deep into UCLA territory and allowed the Bruins to have good field position for most of the game.
“We knew Ishmael was really good, and we’ve faced some really good kick returners [this year] and we’ve stopped them. Tonight we didn’t,” Orgeron said. “We had a couple of bad punts. We need to correct it and open up the competition. In the past eight weeks, special teams have been lights out. Tonight was not their best game, but overall their body of work was pretty good.”
USC had a chance to cut into UCLA’s lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Trojans’ drive was squandered when redshirt sophomore running back Javorius “Buck” Allen fumbled at the Bruins’ 20-yard line with 13:36 remaining. Allen finished the game with 123 rushing yards on 20 carries and one touchdown, his 11th score in his last five games.
USC’s next two drives ended in a punt and another fumble, this one by Kessler, and UCLA was able to clinch the victory on running back Paul Perkins’ 8-yard touchdown run with under four minutes remaining, making the final score 35-14.
“I’m disappointed, but when I think about the overall view and the expectations, I can’t really be that upset,” junior wide receiver Marqise Lee said. “Obviously I’m upset. We wanted to get this win against UCLA. Overall, I’m just grateful that we actually made it this far and got the opportunity to make it to a bowl game.”
Amid questions about his NFL Draft decision, Lee insisted that he would wait until after the team’s bowl game to make up his mind and would not speculate on what his decision might end up being.
The loss served as the final chapter in Orgeron’s tenure as USC’s head coach, and during his time as head coach the Trojans were able to make an impressive turnaround following a 3-2 start to the season that included an upset victory over Stanford. But losses to Notre Dame and UCLA ultimately proved costly to Orgeron’s candidacy.
“Obviously we are disappointed, especially when you don’t beat UCLA and Notre Dame — that is what a head coach of USC is supposed to do,” Orgeron said. “What the future holds, we don’t know, but I do know this — this group of young men and coaches will always be in my heart. They have grown as a team, and I’m proud of them. Regardless of the situation, we’re Trojans, and we’re going to fight.”
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