“I think about the seniors and the roller coaster ride they have gone through, for them to be able to call themselves Pac-12 South champions is a victory,” interim head coach Clay Helton said.
USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) physically dominated UCLA (8-4, 5-4) in the trenches, running the ball an astounding 59 times for 235 yards rushing yards. Junior running back Justin Davis anchored the Trojans rushing attack, carrying the ball 25 times for 130 yards. Ronald Jones II also surpassed Charles White to become the leading freshman rusher in USC history.
“The run game was going to be a huge part of trying to establish ourselves as a physical football team and we exhibited that today,” Helton said.
The Trojans victory over the No. 22-ranked Bruins not only brought back the Victory Bell to USC’s campus in the 85th edition of their crosstown rivalry, but also clinched the Pac-12 South title to earn them a trip to Santa Clara to play Stanford in the conference championship next Saturday at Levi’s Stadium.
Playing in his last game at home, redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 175 yards and two touchdowns, including a seven-yard strike to redshirt junior tight end Taylor McNamara to give the Trojans a three-possession lead late in the game. The three-year starter also snuck one into the end zone on the ground early in the second quarter on his way to leading the Trojans past UCLA for the first time of his USC career.
“I was trying to hold it all in, but I lost it back there, trying to hold back the tears” Kessler said after the game. “It’s the way you want to go out.”
The two rivals went back and forth for the majority of the first half before sophomore Adoree’ Jackson returned a punt for a touchdown for the second consecutive game, taking one back 42 yards to put USC up 20-14 before the half.
After enduring a number of drives that ultimately resulted in three-and-outs, UCLA’s true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen was finally able to lead the the Bruins’ offense down the field and reclaim the lead in the third quarter on a one-yard touchdown run by redshirt junior tail back Paul Perkins, who had two scores in the game.
The tides would turn, though, after redshirt senior defensive end Claude Pelon sacked Rosen and forced him to fumble, which would be recovered by defensive lineman Rasheem Green and returned 31 yards for a score. With the touchdown, Green became the sixth true freshman USC player to record a touchdown this season. It also put USC up for good.
On UCLA’s next drive, freshman Iman Marshall picked off Rosen for the first of the cornerback’s two interceptions of the day.
“I just did my job,” Marshall said. “I understood I made a lot of mistakes last week and made sure I prepared myself this week.”
In his first rivalry game at the Coliseum, Rosen threw for 227 yards and a touchdown and had his 245 pass streak without an interception broken, courtesy of former five-star recruit in Marshall. His lone touchdown came on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Duarte.
The USC offense made the Bruins pay following the pick, as junior wide receiver Darreus Rodgers climbed the ladder and stretched for the end zone to complete a 20-yard touchdown connection from Kessler.
Aside from Jackson’s punt return touchdown, the Trojans’ special teams unit contributed via two first-half field goals by redshirt junior kicker Alex Wood.
The Trojans racked up 410 total yards of offense during the game, while controlling the time-of-possession game, holding possession for just over 40 minutes and doubling UCLA’s time with the football. It was the sixth time this season that USC had more time of possession than its opponent, all coming under Helton.
USC improved to 5-2 under interim head coach Clay Helton, who continues to build his resume for consideration as the program’s permanent head coach.
“Coach Helton is one of those guys that you do anything for,” Kessler said. “I am so proud of this team. We could not have done it without Coach Helton.”
Next Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship game against the No.13-ranked Cardinal is scheduled to kick off at either 4:45 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. It will be USC’s chance at redemption after Stanford handed USC its first loss of the season, 41-31, at the Coliseum in September.
“Last week we lost, but God bless us with another opportunity to play for the Rose Bowl,” Jackson said.
A win against the Cardinal would send the Trojans to their first Rose Bowl since 2009.