It was unraveling rather quickly. Junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had to be helped off the field — status in doubt — redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold had thrown an ill-advised interception and Mike Fafaul, UCLA’s backup quarterback, had thrown a touchdown pass to give the unranked Bruins a lead over the No. 13 Trojans in the second quarter.
False alarm, it turned out to be. USC rattled off 29 unanswered points to beat the Bruins 36-14 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night to win its seventh straight game and keep its Pac-12 South hopes alive. With Utah losing to Oregon earlier on Saturday, the Trojans will claim the Pac-12 South crown if Utah beats Colorado next week.
It’s also, of course, a rivalry win — the rivalry win.
“It feels great to beat UCLA because it gives us bragging rights, and it’s also a good Pac-12 South win,” redshirt senior offensive tackle Zach Banner said.
Darnold threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns, both to senior wide receiver De’Quan Hampton, who had the game of his USC career. Hampton’s three catches for 51 yards was more than the 22 yards he recorded the entire season leading up to Saturday. His score with 9:54 to play in the third quarter gave the Trojans much-needed separation.
“I can say it was worth the wait,” Hampton said. “As much frustration, just being the position I was and getting the opportunity — when it came, it was all worth it.”
Smith-Schuster appeared to injure his hip region while making a leaping catch in the first quarter. Despite receiving treatment from the bench and making a trip to the locker room, the wide receiver re-entered the game at several points, finishing with seven catches for 76 yards. Head coach Clay Helton said after the game that Smith-Schuster had a hip pointer.
USC accrued more than twice the amount of total yards (527 to 226) and rushing yards (260 to 55) as UCLA en route to the Trojans retaining the Victory Bell. Sophomore running back Ronald Jones II led the way with 121 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“I thought that was the key to the game,” Helton said on the efficient rushing offense and defense. “It enabled us to basically hold the ball for 43 minutes and 47 seconds in the game.”
It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. With the game tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, USC appeared to swing the momentum in its favor after sophomore defensive tackle Rasheem Green blocked a UCLA 45-yard field goal attempt. But what followed was an unfortunate sequence of events for the Trojans.
Darnold threw incomplete for Smith-Schuster on the first play of the series, but the wide receiver stumbled to the ground after the play and promptly left for the locker room. Two plays later, Darnold was intercepted by Fabian Moreau, who jumped the route of senior Hampton and returned it to USC’s nine-yard line.
UCLA took two plays for Faufal to find Lasley again for another touchdown, this one putting the Bruins in front 14-7 and USC in the rare position of trailing early in a game. During their win streak, the Trojans have routinely jumped out ahead and set the tone.
“It really showed the maturity of this team,” Helton said. “It did not see any panic with any of the guys.”
Instead, the Trojans stayed poised and collected.
It didn’t take long for them to respond, thanks to Jones blazing past defenders for a 60-yard touchdown run. Jones stutter-stepped his way into a big hole and the burst through, leaving the Bruins in the dust.
“The offensive line did a great job setting up the edge,” Jones said. “Then I just cut upfield and it was off to the races.”
After a three-and-out by UCLA, USC took its first lead on a 31-yard connection from Darnold to Hampton. Hampton reached up over Bruins defensive back Randall Gorfoth to bring down an impressive reception. The Trojans took a 20-14 lead after the extra point went off the upright.
USC tacked on a field goal before halftime to take a 23-14 lead into the locker room.
“I feel like we’ve had a lot of adversity,” Jackson said. “We’ve been ready. When things happen like when they score quick … having that adversity in the past, when things like this hit, we don’t get rocky. We just keep going.”
It was an inauspicious start for the Trojans, as UCLA found the end zone less than 90 seconds into the game. Fafaul found Jordan Lasley for a 56-yard touchdown, with Lasley slipping from the tackle of’ Jackson after making the catch.
But after allowing 14 first half points, the defense clamped down, shutting down UCLA the rest of the way.
“I thought the defense, who really all of a sudden has a hit to them in that first drive, they take a deep breath and the really showed great, great poise,” Helton said.
The Trojans answered with a calm nine-play scoring drive, taking advantage of excellent field position at midfield. A spectacular catch by Smith-Schuster set up first-and-goal at the one-yard line, and Jones pounded it in to even the score at 7-7.
For all the concern about the early-game struggles, USC quickly erased any doubt of an upset. And though Darnold’s two interceptions raised some eyebrows — his second was a wild launch to the end zone from UCLA’s 44-yard line that was picked off — coaches quickly brushed it off as part of the unpredictability he brings to the table.
“Certain animals are born certain animals, and you can’t change it,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “I like that about him. I like that he’s going to push the envelope. He’s going to push the defense and see how much he can get.”
Helton added his positives outweigh the negatives.
“You take the good with the bad,” he said. “But thank goodness for us, there is a lot more good than there is bad.”
USC ends conference play at 7-2 (they face a non-conference opponent, Notre Dame, next week) and will await the result of the Colorado-Utah game, hoping that Utes pull out a victory.
“It would be awesome if they could get a win,” Darnold said.